What is strep throat?

Strep Throat

Strep throat in children: Overview

Strep throat is a bacterial infection that causes a sudden, severe sore throat. Antibiotics are used to treat strep throat and prevent rare but serious complications. Your child should feel better in a few days.

Your child can spread strep throat to others until 24 hours after your child starts taking antibiotics. Keep your child out of school or day care until 1 full day after they start taking antibiotics.

Strep throat

Strep throat is an infection in the throat and the tonsils caused by strep bacteria. It causes a severe sore throat and may cause a fever. It's treated with antibiotics.

What happens when you have strep throat?

Symptoms of strep throat most often start within 2 to 5 days after you come in contact with someone who has a strep infection. Strep throat most often starts to get better in 3 to 7 days with or without antibiotic treatment.

If strep throat isn't treated with antibiotics, you can still spread the infection for a few weeks even if your symptoms go away. If you start antibiotics, within 24 hours you are much less likely to spread the infection. With antibiotics, you also are less likely to get other problems from the strep infection.

What are the symptoms of strep throat?

The most common symptoms are a sudden and severe sore throat, pain when you swallow, and fever. Other symptoms may include swollen tonsils, large lymph nodes, and white or yellow spots on the tonsils. You may also have tiny red spots on the roof of your mouth, a headache, and belly pain.

How is strep throat treated?

Doctors usually treat strep throat with antibiotics. These drugs shorten the time that you're able to spread the disease (are contagious) to others. And they lower the risk of spreading the infection to other parts of your body. They also may help you feel better faster.

Your doctor may also advise you to take an over-the-counter medicine like acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin) to help with pain and lower your fever. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label. Don't give aspirin to anyone younger than 20. It has been linked to Reye syndrome, a serious illness.

Preventing strep throat

Try the following ideas to help prevent strep throat.

  • Avoid contact with anyone who has a strep infection.
  • Wash your hands often.

    This is especially important when you are sick or when you are around someone who is sick.

  • Do not share toothbrushes or eating and drinking utensils.
  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. If you can, cough or sneeze into the bend of your elbow, not your hands.

How is strep throat diagnosed?

Your doctor will examine you, ask about your symptoms, and do a throat culture or rapid strep test.

A rapid strep test analyzes the bacteria in your throat to see if strep is causing your sore throat. The doctor uses a cotton swab to gather cells from the back of your throat for testing. This test gives results within about 10 minutes. But sometimes it doesn't show strep even when you have strep. If the rapid test is positive and says that you do have strep, there's no need to do the throat culture.

A throat culture can find strep bacteria. A culture takes 1 or 2 days, but it's better at finding all cases of strep. A sample of cells from the back of your throat is added to a substance that promotes the growth of bacteria. If no bacteria grow, the culture is negative. If strep bacteria grow, the culture is positive.

How can you care for your child who has strep throat?

  • Give your child antibiotics as directed. Do not stop using them just because your child feels better. Your child needs to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • Keep your child at home and away from other people for 24 hours after starting the antibiotics. Wash your hands and your child's hands often. Keep drinking glasses and eating utensils separate, and wash these items well in hot, soapy water.
  • Give your child acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) for fever or pain. Do not use ibuprofen if your child is less than 6 months old unless the doctor gave you instructions to use it. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label. Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20. It has been linked to Reye syndrome, a serious illness.
  • Do not give your child two or more pain medicines at the same time unless the doctor told you to. Many pain medicines have acetaminophen, which is Tylenol. Too much acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be harmful.
  • Have your child drink lots of water. Frozen ice treats, ice cream, and sherbet also can make your child's throat feel better.
  • Soft foods, such as scrambled eggs and gelatin dessert, may be easier for your child to eat.
  • Make sure your child gets lots of rest.
  • Keep your child away from smoke. Smoke irritates the throat.
  • Place a cool-mist humidifier by your child's bed or close to your child. Follow the directions for cleaning the machine.

How does strep throat spread?

Strep throat is spread through the air in droplets when an infected person breathes, coughs, or sneezes. You may then become infected after breathing in these droplets. Or you may get infected when the droplets get on objects or parts of your skin that come in contact with your mouth, nose, or eyes.

What other health problems can happen when you have strep throat?

Problems (complications) from strep throat are rare. But they can occur, especially if your throat infection isn't treated with antibiotics. Problems can occur when the strep infection spreads to other parts of the body. This can cause other infections, such as an ear or sinus infection or an abscess near the tonsils (peritonsillar abscess). Problems can also cause your immune system to attack your own body. This can cause serious conditions such as rheumatic fever and kidney problems.

Treating strep throat can greatly reduce your risk for rheumatic fever and other problems. It's not clear whether treating the strep infection with antibiotics lowers your risk for inflammation of the kidneys (acute glomerulonephritis).

What is strep throat?

Strep throat is a bacterial infection in the throat and the tonsils. The throat and tonsils get irritated, inflamed, and painful, causing a sudden, severe sore throat.

What causes strep throat?

Strep throat is caused by streptococcal (strep) bacteria. There are many different types of strep bacteria. Some cause more serious illness than others. Strep throat is most often caused by group A streptococcus (GAS).

Strep throat in children: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child has a fever with a stiff neck or a severe headache.
  • Your child has any trouble breathing.
  • Your child's fever gets worse.
  • Your child cannot swallow or cannot drink enough because of throat pain.
  • Your child coughs up colored or bloody mucus.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child's fever returns after several days of having a normal temperature.
  • Your child has any new symptoms, such as a rash, joint pain, an earache, vomiting, or nausea.
  • Your child is not getting better after 2 days of antibiotics.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.