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The Potential Cause of Your Sore Throat

When you have a sore throat, “strep” is probably the first thing that comes to your mind. Yet strep only accounts for 5% to 15% of all sore throats in adults and 15% to 30% of all sore throats in children. The main cause of sore throats, or pharyngitis, is usually viral. Strep throat, on the other hand, is caused by bacteria, typically group A beta-hemolytic streptococcus. Group C and group G streptococcus can also cause strep throat, and group B streptococcus can cause infections in newborns.

Northwestern Medicine Otolaryngologist Riddhi Patel, MD, answers common questions about strep throat.

How does strep throat spread?

The bacteria that cause strep live in the nose and the mouth and spread through respiratory droplets emitted when you cough, sneeze, talk, eat or drink. Therefore, strep spreads through contact with droplets when you share food or drink with a sick person, hug or kiss a sick person, or touch surfaces contaminated with the bacteria and then touch your nose or mouth.

Strep is usually not contagious 24 hours after you start taking antibiotics if your fever has gone away.

What are the symptoms of strep throat?

The primary symptoms of strep are fever and an immediate onset of a sore throat, which can cause pain while swallowing. Other symptoms may include inflamed, red tonsils that sometimes leak pus; red spots on the roof of the mouth; tender lymph nodes on the side of the neck; headache; and gastrointestinal distress, which is more common in children.

Will strep throat go away on its own?

If your sore throat is indeed caused by strep bacteria, antibiotics will help prevent complications, decrease the amount of time you are sick and prevent the spread of the bacteria to someone else. If untreated, strep can cause complications in the throat, such as abscesses, and complications throughout the body, such as heart or kidney problems. In summary, strep can indeed go away without antibiotics, but it may last longer, cause other complications or make others sick.

Are there other treatments for strep throat?

Some home remedies can help with a sore throat, but only antibiotics can treat a bacterial infection. I usually recommend rest, drinking plenty of fluids, acetaminophen or NSAIDs for the pain, soft foods, sucking on hard candies, gargling with salt water or drinking ice water or other cold beverages to help alleviate the pain.

How do you know if you have strep throat?

A strep test, which involves swabbing your throat to see if you have any strep A bacteria growing there, is the only way to determine if you have strep throat. Even your physician will not be able to tell if you have strep throat or viral pharyngitis just by looking into your throat, which is why getting swabbed is so important.

Who is most at risk for strep throat?

Children ages five to 15 are much more likely to get strep than adults.

Is there a certain time of year when strep throat is more common?

Although strep throat can occur anytime, there are more incidences from late fall through early spring.

What’s the best way to prevent strep throat?

Washing your hands, not touching your face, not sharing food or drinks with sick people, and avoiding contact with sick people are all ways to prevent strep throat.

Riddhi Patel, MD
Riddhi Patel, MD
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  • Primary Specialty Otolaryngology
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