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Strep throat: Not just another sore throat

A girl holds a curled hand to her open mouth

Strep throat is most common among children between 5 and 15 years old. It usually occurs in late fall, winter and early spring. Strep throat can be treated with antibiotics.

In the range of possible health problems, a sore throat generally doesn't rank high for seriousness. But when a sore throat is strep throat, the illness can become very serious very quickly.

Without treatment, strep throat can lead to rheumatic fever and permanent heart damage, according to the American Heart Association.

If you or someone you love has signs of this illness, call a doctor immediately. Prompt treatment is essential.

What is strep throat?

Strep throat is an infection caused by the bacteria Streptococcus. Strep throat is most common in children between 5 and 15 years old—especially during colder months when people are gathered indoors. The coughs and sneezes of infected people pass strep bacteria on to others.

Symptoms of strep throat may include:

  • Sore throat and pain when swallowing.
  • Fever.
  • Swollen tonsils. The tonsils and back of the throat may also look red and be dotted with whitish or yellowish specks.
  • Tender and swollen neck glands.
  • Headache.

Treating strep

If you suspect strep throat, contact your doctor. A throat culture—a sample of throat secretions—determines if there is an infection. Some doctors use a test that can confirm a strep infection in about 15 minutes.

Once strep throat is confirmed, it is treated with antibiotics. It's important to take your medication as directed.

Soothe your symptoms

To ease the pain of strep throat, try these tips from the American Academy of Family Physicians and other experts:

  • Drink lots of liquids and eat soft foods. Teas, soups, milkshakes and ice cream help comfort painful swallowing and provide necessary nutrients.
  • Gargle with salt water. Mix 1/4 teaspoon of salt with 8 ounces of warm water.
  • Take antibiotics on schedule. Taking all of your medication helps ensure that the infection won't return.
  • Use a cool-mist humidifier to add moisture to the air. A warm, moist towel placed around the neck may also help relieve the discomfort of swollen glands.

Prevention precautions

Strep throat is contagious until you've taken antibiotics for at least 24 hours. There's no magic pill or vaccine to prevent it.

However, when someone in your family has strep throat, there are steps you can take to make sure others don't get sick. Wash all drinking glasses and eating utensils in hot, soapy water, and wash your hands often.

Reviewed 5/13/2024


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