Strep throat

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at February 29, 2016
StartDiseasesStrep throat

Streptococcal pharyngitis, also known as strep throat, is a very common and contagious bacterial infection of the throat and the tonsils. Strep throat is caused by streptococcal bacteria. If a person has strep throat, his or her throat will become irritated and inflamed, causing the throat to become suddenly and severely sore.

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Definition & Facts

The type of bacteria that specifically causes strep throat is known as Group A Streptococcus, or GAS. Strep throat most often occurs in children between the ages of five and fifteen, although everyone, regardless of age, is susceptible to the disease.

Strep throat is quite common, with at least eleven million people being diagnosed in hospitals annually. There are certain times of the year when people are more likely to contract strep throat, though: during late fall, winter, and early spring.

Symptoms & Complaints

Knowing the various symptoms of strep throat can help people begin to treat it early and cut down on the risk of spreading the infection.

The most common and recognizable symptom of strep throat is an extremely and acutely sore throat. The throat will not feel merely rough or scratchy, as it does with a common cold, but genuinely sore. Additionally, there are other symptoms specific to the disease that should be kept in mind, including the following:

If a person is experiencing a sore throat with symptoms like coughing and sneezing, they are likely experiencing a cold or other viral infection, rather than strep throat. Swollen tonsils without any of the other common symptoms of strep throat can also be indicative of a viral infection instead of a bacterial one. It is important to differentiate between strep throat and viral infections because the treatments for these different conditions are not interchangeable and, therefore, won't be effective in treating the actual illness.

Causes

As stated above, streptococcal pharyngitis is a bacterial infection caused by Group A streptococcus bacteria. This type of bacteria, along with many others, are found naturally in the throat and skin of healthy people, so many people carry it and show no signs of illness.

However, when GAS is present in the body in excess, or gets into the wrong place, it can also cause infections that can lead to potentially severe illnesses like strep throat, as well as impetigo, scarlet fever, and cellulitis.

Diagnosis & Tests

In order to diagnose strep throat, a doctor should take into account one's medical history and physical symptoms in addition to performing a lab test known as a throat culture, where the doctor takes a sample of fluids from the back of the throat in order to detect infection.

A doctor is required by law to perform a throat culture on every patient that they suspect may have strep throat. If a patient exhibits three or four of the most common symptoms of strep throat listed above, though, a doctor may begin treatment for strep throat before receiving the results of the throat culture.

It is important for anyone who thinks they might have strep throat to get a diagnosis as soon as possible. Untreated strep throat is highly contagious and can lead to bothersome and potentially serious complications, including middle ear infections, peritonsillar cellulitis, peritonsillar abscess, and sinusitis. As soon as one starts to notice symptoms, he or she should visit a doctor to either rule out infection or begin treatment.

Treatment & Therapy

The most common and most effective way to treat streptococcal pharyngitis is with prescription antibiotics. The most frequently used antibiotic used is penicillin, although doctors also prescribe amoxicillin or cephalexin for those who are allergic to penicillin. The sooner a patient starts taking antibiotics, the sooner they will see a decrease in both the severity and duration of symptoms, as well as a decrease in the chances for complications.

While strep throat is a painful disease and has the potential to put a person out of commission for a few days, it is also, generally speaking, an easily treatable disease. Once antibiotics are started, improvement quickly follows. Most people notice a drop in their temperature almost immediately -- within 24 hours of starting antibiotics. Other symptoms, such as the sore throat and swollen lymph nodes, begin to improve within two to three days. After being on antibiotics for 24 hours, a patient is no longer contagious.

However, infected people should still take care to disinfect toothbrushes and other possessions that they used while they were sick to make sure all the bacteria is killed. This action will ensure that no one else gets sick themselves.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Strep throat is most commonly spread when an infected person shares certain things with an uninfected person. Toothbrushes and eating and drinking utensils are the most common culprits for spreading the disease. To prevent the spreading, one should wash their hands often when they are around people with colds, and other viral and bacterial illnesses.

Being in close contact with someone who is infected can also increase the likelihood of contracting strep throat, so it is important for people to keep their distance from those who might be sick, and, in turn, for those who might be sick to keep their distance from others.

Contrary to popular belief, the size of a child's tonsils isn't a risk factor for throat infections. No matter their age or size, anyone can contract strep. Both children and adults who have had their tonsils removed can still get strep throat, so it is important to always take proper precautions.