What Causes Strep Throat and How Long Does It Last?

Reviewed on 1/12/2021

What is strep throat?

Strep throat is usually caused by exposure to the group A streptococci bacteria. Antibiotics will help you get rid of symptoms of strep throat, and the medicine may also end contagiousness within 24 hours.
Strep throat is usually caused by exposure to the group A streptococci bacteria. Antibiotics will help you get rid of symptoms of strep throat, and the medicine may also end contagiousness within 24 hours.

Strep throat, sometimes known simply as strep, is an infection in the throat and tonsils that can cause a sore or scratchy throat.

The scientific name for strep throat is Streptococcal Pharyngitis. Strep throat is most frequently caused by bacteria called group A Streptococcus (GAS). These bacteria are very contagious. After the bacteria are transferred to your nose, mouth, or eyes, they can cause the strep throat infection.

It’s possible for anyone to get strep throat, but some people are more likely than others to get the infection. Strep throat is more common in children ages five to fifteen, and is less common in children younger than three. Like other contagious illnesses, strep throat is more common in the winter and early spring.

Strep throat is usually a fairly mild infection, but it can cause discomfort. Strep throat can also cause complications if the infection is left untreated. It's important to recognize signs and symptoms of strep throat so that you and your doctor can diagnose and treat the infection.

Signs and symptoms of strep throat

Signs and symptoms of strep throat vary. In fact, some people infected with strep throat do not have any symptoms, but they can still spread the infection.

Symptoms similar to strep throat symptoms may be caused by other infections or viruses. If you have a cough, runny nose, or goopy eyes, it's likely that you have a different kind of infection.

Symptoms of strep throat may include:

Fever

Fever, a body temperature higher than normal, is a common symptom of infection. In cases of strep throat, a fever may come on suddenly. In many cases, fever is highest on the second day of infection and may lessen after that.

Chills

Chills are another common symptom of strep throat. This includes feeling cold and shaking or shivering.

Sore throat

The most tell-tale symptom of strep throat is a sore throat. Swallowing may hurt, and you may feel some scratching in the throat. The throat, and possibly your tonsils (lumps at the back of the throat), will look red and inflamed. You may also see white patches on the throat or tonsils.

Abdominal pain

Abdominal pain (pain in the lower stomach) is another symptom of strep throat. This symptom is usually more common in young boys and might also include nausea.

SLIDESHOW

Sore Throat or Strep Throat? How to Tell the Difference See Slideshow

Causes of strep throat

Strep throat is usually caused by exposure to the group A streptococci bacteria, although some cases of strep are caused by the Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria. You may breathe in the bacteria when a contagious person coughs or sneezes, or you may touch something a contagious person has also touched.

Strep throat spreads through close contact between people. Strep is most common in places where children gather, such as classrooms. The illness can then spread within households.

Usually, you will start showing symptoms about two to five days after you are exposed to a contagious person. After getting exposed, you are most contagious for the first two weeks unless you are treated with antibiotics.

When to see the doctor for strep throat

In some mild cases of strep, symptoms will disappear without treatment. However, most cases of strep throat need to be treated by a doctor. This is particularly important because strep can be difficult to distinguish from other illnesses and is highly contagious.

Severe cases of strep throat can create complications if left untreated. These complications include a heart disease called rheumatic fever, sinus and ear infections, and post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, a kidney disease.

Diagnosing strep throat

Doctors can perform two kinds of tests to diagnose strep throat. Both tests include using a swab to take a sample from your throat. A laboratory will then analyze the sample to find evidence of strep throat bacteria.

One type of test is called a throat culture. These tests are very accurate and sensitive, but it can take 24-48 hours to get results. The other kind of test is called a rapid test. This test only takes 15 minutes to detect the presence of strep-causing bacteria. However, sometimes doctors may do both kinds of tests, since a throat culture may pick up cases of strep throat that a rapid test can miss.

Treatments for strep throat

Antibiotics may be prescribed to treat strep throat. Antibiotics will help you get rid of signs and symptoms of strep throat, and the medicine may also end contagiousness within 24 hours. It’s very important to take the full course of antibiotics, even if symptoms disappear earlier.

QUESTION

Just about any painful sore throat is caused by strep. See Answer

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References
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Group A Streptococcal (GAS) Disease."

International Journal of General Medicine: "Abdominal pain and nausea in the diagnosis of streptococcal pharyngitis in boys."

Mount Sinai: "Strep throat."

Tanz, R. Nelson Pediatric Symptom-Based Diagnosis, PubMed Epub, 2017.

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