Strep throat can hit your household anytime, causing discomfort for your child and distress for you as their caretaker. It can impact your family's daily routine, sleep schedules, and well-being and is often a frustrating experience that requires patience and care. Despite that, with the right treatment and support, your little one will bounce back, and your household will regain its harmony again.
Prepare and protect your family by reading this in-depth guide to strep throat, with expert guidance from board-certified pediatrician Dr. Kristen Borchetta, DO.
- Recognize symptoms of strep throat which may include fever, painful throat, white patches on the tonsils, trouble swallowing, and swollen neck glands.
- Treat strep throat promptly to avoid serious complications.
- Prevent transmission by practicing good hygiene and avoiding close contact with those infected.
Recognizing Strep Throat
Strep throat is a bacterial infection that affects people of all ages but is especially prevalent among children aged 5 to 15, and 3 out of 10 children experiencing a sore throat have strep throat.
Differentiating Strep Throat
Strep throat can be distinguished from other sore throats by the absence of a cough and the presence of other specific symptoms. If you have a cough, runny nose, or inflamed eyes, it could be a sign of a viral infection, such as a common cold, instead of strep throat.
Strep throat can cause the following symptoms:
- Sore throat
- White patches on the tonsils
- Pain when swallowing
- Swollen neck glands
- Bright red tongue
- Trouble swallowing
- Little red spots on the roof of the mouth
The Cause of Strep Throat
Caused by group A Streptococcus, strep throat spreads easily through respiratory droplets transmitted by an infected person talking, coughing, or sneezing or through direct contact with saliva or surfaces where the bacteria has landed.
Strep Throat Contagion
Strep throat is a highly contagious disease that can spread rapidly among groups and family members if not quickly diagnosed and treated with antibiotics.
Transmission of strep throat occurs through respiratory droplets, shared food or drink, and contaminated surfaces.
Strep bacteria are most commonly transmitted through direct person-to-person contact. Inhaling respiratory droplets from an infected person - either through sneezing, coughing, or close contact - is the most typical method. Contact with saliva or nasal secretions is also a possible method of transmission.
Your child can also contract or spread strep throat through shared food or drinks. Specifically, saliva left on straws, utensils, or cups transmits the streptococcal bacteria to an uninfected person.
Group A Streptococcus can survive outside the human body on contaminated surfaces between three days and 6.5 months! This means that if someone with strep throat has recently touched a surface, your child may get infected by touching it. The best way to protect yourself is to wash your hands regularly and avoid being in close contact with people who have strep throat.
Diagnosing Strep Throat
Appropriate treatment and prevention of infection spread hinge on the ability to diagnose strep throat accurately. A rapid strep test and a throat culture are the two most common tests for this purpose.
Diagnosing strep with a rapid strep test
The rapid strep test is designed to detect strep A antigens, substances that elicit an immune response. During this test, a cotton swab collects bacteria from the tonsils and back of the throat. The test typically takes 5-10 minutes after sample collection. If a rapid test is negative, but your child's doctor believes it's a strep infection based on symptoms, they may order a throat culture.
Diagnosing strep with a throat culture
A throat culture is a more detailed and specific test for strep that is performed in a lab. The standard in-office procedure for diagnosing strep is to swab the throat for both a rapid test and a throat culture. If the rapid test is positive, the doctor will discard the culture. If the rapid test is negative, the doctor will send the culture to the lab for processing.
Diagnosing strep at home
You can test your child for strep from the comfort of home, under the guidance of a pediatrician, through a service like Blueberry Pediatrics. A parent will swab their child's throat, run the rapid test, and send a photo of the results to the doctor. If the test is positive, the doctor will prescribe treatment/antibiotics. If the test is negative, the doctor will advise on the next steps. Similar to in-office visits, in some cases, if the doctor believes the symptoms indicate a strep throat infection, the doctor will advise that the child be taken to their primary care physician for a throat culture.
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Treating Strep Throat
Antibiotics are the most effective means to prevent complications and relieve symptoms of strep throat. Without antibiotic treatment, symptoms and contagiousness may persist for 2-3 weeks.
First-line antibiotics for strep throat include penicillin and amoxicillin, although others can also be used. These antibiotics work by stopping the synthesis of the bacterial cell wall, leading to cell wall lysis and the death of the bacteria.
Within 48 hours of starting antibiotics, your child’s contagiousness will decrease, and symptoms will improve. Regardless of outward progress, it’s important to administer the full course of antibiotics to your child.
While antibiotics take effect, over-the-counter pain relievers and home remedies can help alleviate symptoms of strep throat. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) are the best over-the-counter pain relievers for strep throat relief.
Some effective home remedies for the pain associated with strep throat include:
- Drinking herbal tea
- Getting plenty of rest
- Gargling with salt water
- Drinking cold fluids or sucking on popsicles
Complications and Risks
If left untreated, strep throat can result in rare but serious complications such as:
- Rheumatic fever
- Rheumatic heart disease
- Autoimmune inflammatory arthritis
- Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections (PANDAS)
Timely diagnosis and antibiotic treatment of strep throat are vital to reducing these risks. It is important to note that complications from strep infection are not typically seen in children under 3 years old, so strep testing and treatment are not routinely indicated in this age group.
Preventing Strep Throat
Strep throat prevention strategies include:
- Washing hands thoroughly and frequently
- Minimizing close contact with infected people
- Completing the prescribed antibiotic course when infected
- Quickly identifying and treating strep carriers
- Ensuring family members use separate toothbrushes and utensils
Additionally, children diagnosed with strep throat should refrain from attending school, daycare, or work until they’ve had antibiotics for at least one day to avoid spreading strep to their peers.
Diagnose and treat strep throat with Blueberry Pediatrics
Strep throat is common among young children, but that doesn’t make it any less a nuisance when it hits your household. To limit its impact on your family, parents should be aware of the signs and symptoms and quickly seek medical attention if their child is exhibiting any of them.
Taking preventative measures is key, but you can prepare your family by keeping rapid at-home strep tests in your medicine cabinet and joining a pediatric telemedicine company like Blueberry Pediatrics. Blueberry Pediatrics offers 24/7 access to board-certified pediatricians.
The best part? An entire year of Blueberry membership costs less than the typical copay of a single urgent care visit, and one membership covers all children in your household! It's like having a doctor's office in your house. Sign up here to chat with a pediatrician right away.
- Kramer, A., Schwebke, I., & Kampf, G. (2006). How long do nosocomial pathogens persist on inanimate surfaces? A systematic review. BMC Infectious Diseases, 6(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2334-6-130
- Strep A Test: MedlinePlus Lab Test Information. (2021, November 8). Medlineplus.gov. https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/strep-a-test/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Group A strep. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/groupastrep/diseases-hcp/strep-throat.html
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the five symptoms of strep throat?
Strep throat symptoms typically include fever, pain when swallowing, a red and sore throat, white patches or streaks of pus on the tonsils, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck. There may also be tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth (petechiae) and swollen, tender neck glands.
Will strep throat go away on its own?
While strep throat can resolve without medication in about a week, it is highly recommended you give your child antibiotics to reduce the risk of complications.
What is strep throat usually caused by?
Strep throat is an infection caused by Streptococcus pyogenes, also known as group A streptococcus. It can spread through droplets when someone with the infection sneezes or coughs or through shared food or drinks.
How can I tell the difference between strep throat and a viral sore throat?
Look for symptoms such as fever, chills, swollen neck glands, and lack of cough, but the best way to know is testing because it can be difficult to distinguish between... (written better than this of course)