My Throat’s Sore: Is It Strep?

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A bad sore throat awakens your child or you at night. Could it be strep? Before you jump to that conclusion, know what to watch for and check your symptoms.

Most sore throats develop from a common cold or the flu, both of which are caused by viruses. Strep is different: it is caused by a bacterial infection (streptococcus pyogenes). The good news is that antibacterial medications can work to treat strep. The bad news is that strep infections are highly contagious and can lead to severe complications, especially in children.

Symptoms to Look For

Having several of the symptoms below cannot determine whether you are dealing with a strep infection. Many of these symptoms accompany viral infections too. But watch for them anyway.

  • Quickly developing throat pain, usually within just a few hours.
  • High fever, (101.0° F [38.3° C] or higher for adults; 103.0° F [39.4° C] or higher for children).
  • White patches or pus on tonsils (back of throat).
  • Red spots on back roof of mouth.
  • Pain when swallowing.
  • Nausea (especially in children)
  • Swollen lymph nodes (in neck)
  • Headache, body aches
  • Rash
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These symptoms can also be consistent with non-strep infections. If you suspect a strep infection, you should go to an urgent care center or other health provider so that a quick diagnostic test can be performed. Using a cotton swab, the provider takes a sample from the back of the throat for testing. This rapid screen test takes about 5-10 minutes and is usually accurate. If, however, the test is negative but strep is still suspected, you will probably be treated with antibiotics anyway (we used to send a sample to a lab for further testing, but that practice has generally been discontinued).

Treatment

If strep is detected, a course of antibiotic medication is usually prescribed. Even if symptoms subside quickly, it is important to take all of the medicine as directed to prevent recurrence. Remember, it’s never okay to take someone else’s antibiotic, or to take an antibiotic prescribed for a previous medical episode.

Untreated strep infections can clear up on their own, but they create a high risk of rather severe complications.

Complications

Strep infections, left untreated, can spread to skin, sinuses, tonsils, blood, and ears. They can also cause the following severe conditions:

  • Rheumatic fever that can result in permanent damage to the heart, stroke, and even death (usually contracted by children age 5-15, but also by others).
  • Scarlet fever, usually appearing as a bright rash on the body (usually infects children, but is rather rare today).
  • Inflammation of the kidneys, a condition that can become serious.

Prevention

Strep throat infections are highly contagious and are usually passed from one person to another by direct contact, coughing, or sneezing. The number of cases increases during the fall to spring months, primarily because people are in closer contact with one another indoors. School children are especially susceptible.

Good personal hygiene—washing hands frequently (with soap for at least 30 seconds), covering the nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing, and avoiding direct contact with infected persons—are about the only ways to prevent getting or passing a strep infection to others. In addition,

  • Use hand sanitizer for the whole family if you’re on the go,
  • Refrain from using anyone else’s utensils,
  • Keep hands out of your mouth, and
  • Wash your dishes in hot, soapy water.

What You Should Do

If you or a family member has a bad sore throat with a high fever that came on suddenly, you should visit an urgent care clinic or other health provider to get checked. They can usually tell in a matter of minutes whether a strep infection is causing the problem, and they can help you feel better quickly.

In such a situation, feel free to walk into or call Kathy’s Urgent Care. We’re here to help you M-F, 8:00am – 8:00pm and on weekends 8:00am – 5:00pm.