Strep throat, or streptococcal pharyngitis, is a bacterial infection characterized by a sore, scratchy throat. Whether you currently have it, or are worried that you might have it, here is some important information regarding the condition.

What Causes Strep Throat?

Strep throat is caused by the transmission of group A streptococcus bacteria, or Streptococcus pyogenes, through the mouth or nose. Someone who is already infected can spread strep throat directly through their saliva or respiratory droplets by talking, coughing, or sneezing. Surfaces that retain respiratory droplets can also spread infection if someone touches their nose or mouth after coming into contact with these surfaces.

girl holding sore throat in Houston, TX

What Are the Symptoms of the Condition?

Some common symptoms of strep throat include:

  • Sore, red throat
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Swollen tonsils or uvula
  • Red spots on the roof of the mouth
  • White film on the tongue
  • Fever
  • Stomach pain
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Rash

If you have any of these symptoms, it is recommended that you be tested for strep throat. At-home, rapid strep tests are available, but are not 100% accurate. A throat culture test takes a few days to yield results, but is more accurate than a rapid strep test. Accurate testing is important so that you can take the necessary steps after receiving a diagnosis.

If you are having cold symptoms such as cough, runny nose, hoarse voice or conjunctivitis, you are most likely suffering from a virus, and not strep throat.

an emergency room nurse checks a child's throat in Houston, TX

What Happens if Strep Throat is Left Untreated?

A commonly asked question is “Does strep throat go away on its own?”. Although most cases of strep throat resolve within three to seven days with or without antibiotic treatment, leaving it untreated could cause a higher risk of complications, especially in children. It can also cause you to become contagious for a longer period and spread strep throat to a loved one or to anyone who comes within close proximity to you. You may be contagious for up to two or three weeks without antibiotic treatment. Certain symptoms, such as sore throat, can also grow unbearable while waiting for the bacteria to run its course. Luckily, there are antibiotics for a sore throat that can be prescribed as treatment to make the discomfort more bearable.

a doctor holds a pill at an emergency room in Houston, TX

What are the Treatments of Pharyngitis?

Strep throat is usually treated with antibiotics, such as penicillin. Antibiotics are prescribed by a doctor and then taken for the full course of treatment, even once symptoms are no longer present. Antibiotics usually come with side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, indigestion, and more. However, antibiotics are effective in preventing serious complications and longer periods of contagiousness.

Symptoms of strep throat may also be remedied at home. The most common home remedy for a sore throat is to create a mixture of salt and warm water and to gargle it. This can soothe a sore throat, reduce redness and swelling and kill bacteria present in your mouth. Another remedy involves swishing coconut oil in your mouth for at least 10 minutes before spitting, rinsing, and then brushing your teeth. This has been shown to reduce the presence of strep bacteria and toxins in your mouth. While these home remedies may treat some symptoms of strep throat, antibiotics are the only cure and the only way to prevent further contagion.

A girl gets treated for Pharyngitis

When Should I Seek Medical Attention?

As mentioned before, allowing strep throat to run its course without the use of antibiotics may cause a higher risk of complications, such as rheumatic fever, especially in children. There is the danger of the infection spreading to other parts of the body, such as the ear and sinus and causing a sinus or ear infection. Other complications include abscesses (pockets of pus) around the neck or tonsils, or swollen lymph nodes. It is important to seek medical treatment if any of these symptoms manifest, but more important to seek treatment to prevent the manifestation of these symptoms, which, if left untreated, can cause serious health conditions.

It is also important to note that strep throat is easily spread within a family due to constant close contact between family members. In these cases, a practitioner of family medicine can help prevent the further spread of strep throat within a home by creating a treatment plan for you and your family.

person washing hands in Houston, TX

How Do You Prevent Strep Throat?

Strep throat can be most effectively prevented with good hygiene. Making sure you wash your hands when you come in contact with potentially infected surfaces is crucial. You should also resist touching your nose and face to ensure that any streptococcus bacteria does not enter your system. 

Strep throat is most common in children ages 5 through 15 and, by extension, parents of school-aged children or adults who are often in contact with children. By making sure children retain good hygiene practices, such as washing their hands with soap for 30 seconds and coughing into their elbows, we can prevent the catching and the spread of strep throat in the community. That and early detection with either rapid strep tests or throat culture tests, which are available from most pharmacies and health care providers.

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of strep throat, be sure to head to your local medical care facility to receive the proper medical treatment.