Strep throat is caused by one of many different kinds of streptococcal bacteria that cause severe irritation and inflammation of the throat and tonsils.
Strep throat is easily passed from person to person, and it's not uncommon for an entire family to share an infection. It's spread by breathing in tiny droplets of saliva from an infected person.
A strep infection usually goes away all by itself in three to seven days, but your physician can prescribe antibiotics to greatly shorten the time you are contagious and reduce the chance that the strep will spread to other parts of your body.
Without treatment, you risk developing ear and sinus infections, tonsil abscesses and even a dangerous condition called rheumatic fever.
How do I know if it's strep?
A sore throat caused by a virus, while it can be just as painful as strep, is usually accompanied by cold symptoms such as coughing and a runny nose.
Common symptoms of strep throat are sudden and severe red sore throat with pain on swallowing, a fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit, swollen tonsils and lymph nodes and white or yellow spots in the back of the throat. You may also have a headache or stomach ache.
You should call your doctor if your sore throat is not accompanied by cold-like symptoms and there has been no improvement in two or three days. To diagnose your symptoms, your physician can perform a rapid strep test or a throat culture and begin appropriate antibiotic treatments. A sore throat caused by a virus or allergy will not benefit from antibiotics. Any use of unneeded antibiotics can do more harm than good.
Prevent the spread of strep
Your best defense against strep is to avoid contact with anyone who has a strep infection. That includes not sharing eating utensils and food with a sick person. If you are the one who is sick, stay home from work or school for at least 24 hours after starting an antibiotic.
Using a humidifier during the winter (or year-round for dry climates) makes you less susceptible to bacteria. Make sure humidifiers are cleaned regularly.
You can reinfect yourself by using your old toothbrush or dirty drinking glass. After a few days on antibiotics, switch to a new, clean toothbrush. If you are not being treated, you can remain contagious for two to three weeks after your symptoms disappear.
Always practice good hand washing habits and wipe all flat surfaces with antibacterial wipes.
The same strep bacteria that causes strep throat in humans can also cause infections in pets and make them a carrier. Sometimes there are noticeable symptoms such as fever, loss of appetite and a red, inflamed throat. If your family continues to have bouts of strep, consider having family pets tested and treated.
Plenty of rest and over-the-counter pain relievers can make you more comfortable. Make sure to use any medications according to the package directions, especially with children.