Strep throat is a bacterial infection of the throat (including the tonsils). Strep throat infection is more common among children and teenagers, with an incidence peaking between five to fifteen years of age. However, it can also affect adults and may be associated with 5-10% of all sore throats.
Many people get strep throat infections between late autumn and spring, but it is more prevalent during the school time when students are in close proximity to each other in classrooms.
What Causes Strep Throat?
This type of throat infection is caused by bacteria belonging to Group A Streptococcus, or more specifically, by Streptococcus pyogenes. The strep bacteria invade the throat tissues and cause an inflammatory reaction. However, some people may carry the Streptococcus bacteria on the skin or in the throat but may remain asymptomatic.
Strep throat is contagious and can be transmitted from one person to another by inhaling respiratory droplets coming from the saliva or nasal secretions. Bacteria can spread by sneezing, coughing, or communicating in close proximity to another. It is therefore commonly caught in schools, day care centers, hospitals, and even at home. It is even possible to transmit the bacteria through food.
What are the Symptoms of Strep Throat?
Usually symptoms will appear two to five days after one is infected with the bacteria, although some will experience symptoms as early as one day after being infected.
The soreness of the throat experienced in strep throat infection is often described as sudden, with the back of the throat including tonsils appearing red and swollen. Many complain that swallowing is painful, which can lead to dehydration. While symptoms in young children and adolescents are more pronounced, symptoms in adults are milder. They often complain only of a mild soreness in the throat, and in a few cases, this may even go undetected. Fever may be absent. However, it is also possible for adults to experience severe symptoms such as intense throat pain and difficulty swallowing.
Other signs and symptoms that may be experienced by children, teens, and adults include swollen neck nodes, white or yellowish spots on the tonsils or throat, red inflamed throat, and high fever.
How is Strep throat Different from Sore Throat?
It is important to differentiate a strep throat caused by bacterial infection, from ordinary colds or sore throats caused by viral infection. Due to its bacterial cause, strep throat infections require antibiotic treatment while viral sore throat infections do not. If left untreated, strep throat may lead to complications such as rheumatic fever (an immune disease), otitis media (middle ear infection), or glomerulonephritis (a kidney disease).
Unlike a sore throat, strep throat is not associated with symptoms such as stuffy nose, coughing, or sneezing. If one experiences these cold symptoms, then it is unlikely due to a streptococcal infection.
The best way to diagnose strep throat is with a throat swab followed by a throat culture, to identify the presence of the streptococcus bacterial.
When to Consult a Doctor
A person with a sore throat and cold symptoms may have a viral infection and can try home treatments and remedies for symptom relief. However, if the sore throat lasts for more than two days and is not associated with cold symptoms, it might be a strep throat infection.
For minor infections, home remedies including over-the-counter pain relievers and lozenges might suffice. Dehydration must be avoided despite difficulties with swallowing, so cold beverages or warm soup may be beneficial.
However, one must consult a doctor if there is no improvement in symptoms after two or three days, or if a severe sore throat accompanied by high fever is experienced. Call a doctor if swollen tonsils or a red rash is experienced.
Antibiotics such as penicillin, penicillin derivatives, or cephalosporins are prescribed for treatment.