Strep throat, also known as streptococcal pharyngitis, is an infection of the throat that affects the pharynx, tonsils, and larynx. It is caused by a class of bacterium known as group A streptococcus.
Strep throat usually affects children between ages 5 and 15, but people of any age can suffer from this infectious disease. Strep is characterized by a general feeling of malaise and typically manifests as a painful sore throat accompanied by fever and chills.
The classic grouping of fever (greater than 101.0 °F), pharyngeal exudates, the absence of a cough, and arthralgia only occur approximately 40%-60% of the time with strep throat cases.
However, once you have recourse to the doctor-prescribed antibiotics, you can find yourself back in the pink of health rather quickly.
On the other hand, an untreated case of strep throat can pave the way for rare but serious health problems, including the following:
- A rare kidney complication called post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis
- An abscess near the tonsils
- A serious inflammatory condition called rheumatic fever
- Infected lymph nodes
- Poststreptococcal reactive arthritis, characterized by an inflammation of the joints
How do You Get Strep Throat?
Bacteria that go by the name of Streptococcus pyogenes, or group A streptococcus, and reside in the nose and throat are the culprits behind this fairly contagious infection. As it is typical of most infections, you can easily pick up the disease-causing bacteria from an infected person, especially if you’re in close contact with him/her.
Anyone who gets exposed to the respiratory secretions of an infected individual, either directly or indirectly, can come down with this disease. It is important to know, though, that not all infected people have symptoms or seem sick (carriers).
When a person with strep throat coughs or sneezes, he/she releases respiratory droplets containing the bacteria, which can land on any unsuspecting individual or any inanimate object that falls in their trajectory.
Thus, even though these airborne droplets are the typical modes of transmission, you can contract the infection in various ways, including the following:
- Directly breathing in the droplets that hold the bacteria
- Drinking or eating from the same utensils used by a sick person
- Touching a surface or an object with bacteria-carrying droplets on them and subsequently brushing your eyes, mouth, or nose with your contaminated hands
- Shaking the hands of an infected individual
- Using personal items belonging to an infected individual, such as towels
- Touching sores on the skin caused by group A strep, such as impetigo.
Less often, people can catch the bug through food that is not handled properly. Moreover, experts believe that pets or household items, like toys, are unlikely carriers of the infection-causing pathogens.
Risk Factors Associated with Strep Throat
Almost anyone is susceptible to developing group A strep throat irrespective of age, but a significantly greater incidence is reported among children and teens between 5 to 15 years of age. The infection rarely affects younger children below 3 years of age.
The most common risk factor is close contact with another person with group A strep pharyngitis. Adults at increased risk for group A strep throat include:
- People with a weakened immune system such as those undergoing chemotherapy
- Parents of school-aged children
- Adults who are in regular contact with children such as those employed at schools or day care centers
Certain times of the year are earmarked as open season for this infection. A greater number of cases are reported during winter and spring when people tend to flock together and are, therefore, at a greater risk of contracting the infection.
Signs and Symptoms of Strep Throat
The symptoms of strep throat usually become apparent 1 to 4 days after initial exposure to the bacteria, either through the inhalation of airborne droplets or direct contact with an infected person or surface.
The characteristic symptoms of this condition are a sore throat and pain while swallowing, which are also common to several types of viral infections.
A few other symptoms of strep throat may also overlap with symptoms of a viral infection. For instance, you are likely to suffer from fever and joint aches in both these conditions. It is, therefore, not surprising for people to misjudge their symptoms and wrongfully assume their condition to be a common bout of viral infection.
One way to tell the two apart is that a viral infection is accompanied by cold symptoms such as a runny nose or a cough, which are missing in the case of a bacterial strep infection.
Some other symptoms that occur in the wake of a strep infection include:
- Sudden bouts of fever, especially if you run a temperature higher than 101°F
- Swelling and tenderness in the glands or lymph nodes located in your neck
- Red and swollen appearance inside the throat
- Pus-like white or yellow patches or spots appearing on the back of the throat and on the tonsils
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Body aches and pains
- Petechiae or red spots on the roof of the mouth
In some cases, a strep throat infection is accompanied by the appearance of a distinctive skin rash that has scarlet red hues and a rough feel. The rash is caused by toxins produced by the same infection-causing bacteria and is commonly known as scarlet fever.
Is Strep Throat Contagious?
Strep throat is very contagious, especially when left untreated. People who are in close contact with an infected person are at the greatest risk and can contract the infection when he/she coughs or sneezes, shares utensils or cups with a sick individual, or via an infected surface, such as a doorknob or faucet handle.
The risk of transmission is significantly reduced once the infected individual begins taking antibiotics for strep throat. However, it takes about 24 hours for the antibiotics to kick in, and the individual continues to be contagious during this interim period.
Thus, it is best not to leave the house for school, day care, or work until your antibiotic regimen has been in effect for 24 hours. A day after starting antibiotic treatment, your fever will start to dissipate and you are likely to become free from contagions, even though your symptoms may not be entirely resolved.
Can Strep Throat Be Prevented or Avoided?
Given that strep throat is highly contagious, it can be quite hard to protect yourself when you are in the proximity of people who are down with this infection. Difficult as it may be, safeguarding yourself against the disease is still imperative.
- Try your best to minimize contact with infected people, which includes avoiding being in their vicinity and not sharing food and drinks, utensils, drinking glasses, and other personal belongings with them.
- If it’s mandatory for you to share the same space as an infected person, for whatever reasons, the least you can do is wash your hands frequently. Keeping an alcohol-based hand sanitizer handy when going out is another recommend tip to prevent the spread of germs.
- If you happen to be in the throes of infection yourself, always cover your mouth with a tissue or sleeve whenever you cough or sneeze. If nothing else, make sure you cough or sneeze into your elbow but never into your hands.
How is Strep Throat Diagnosed?
The standard procedure for diagnosing a case of strep throat involves a physical examination and lab testing.
Your doctor will first check your throat for signs of inflammation and your neck for swollen lymph nodes. He/she may also inquire about your medical history and any other symptoms that you might be experiencing.
If all the signs point to a strep infection, your doctor will order one or two additional tests to eliminate any remaining doubts.
The best way to determine if your infection is indeed caused by strep bacteria or some other form of the pathogen is through a rapid strep test. This test is performed on a sample of saliva collected from the back of your throat with a cotton swab. It only takes a matter of 5 to 10 minutes for the test to detect traces of strep bacteria.
However, if the test results come back negative despite all other signs pointing to the contrary, chances are that the test has produced a false negative. In that case, your doctor may feel the need for more comprehensive testing and send a swab sample of tissue from the back of your throat for a follow-up test called throat culture.
Unlike the rapid antigen test, a culture takes longer to yield results and you will have one or two days to know for sure whether you have strep throat or not.
Many health practitioners with a high index of suspicion of strep throat will begin empiric antibiotics (to avoid strep A complications) awaiting a throat culture.
Treatment of Strep Throat
If you test positive for strep throat, your doctor will prescribe a course of antibiotics to combat the bacterial infection. The doctor will determine the appropriate drugs for your case depending upon your medical history, the severity of your symptoms, and whether or not you have any medication-related allergies.
You can greatly improve your odds if you start taking these antibiotics within 48 hours from the onset of illness. By killing the bacteria at the root, these medicines help relieve the symptoms of strep throat and speed up the recovery process.
If you fail to see any improvement in your condition after a few days of antibiotic treatment, chances are the bacteria have grown resistant to the prescribed antibiotics or a complication from the strep infection is present.
Consequently, your doctor may have to switch your prescription to a different choice of drugs or pursue other diagnostic testing/evaluation.
For the antibiotics to engender the desired effect, it is essential that you follow through your doctor’s orders and complete the entire course of medication.
A lot of people ditch their medicines the minute they feel sufficiently healthy. Such partial treatment can leave a few bacteria alive and thereby trigger a relapse or pave the way for serious complications such as rheumatic fever and kidney inflammation.
While antibiotics and over-the-counter medications are often used to treat strep throat, some simple home remedies can also help alleviate the discomfort and expedite the healing process.
Simple Ways to Get Relief from Strep Throat at Home
Here are effective home remedies for strep throat. Also, for proper diagnosis and treatment, do consult your doctor.
1. Drink Chamomile Tea
Chamomile has analgesic properties and hence can provide relief from headache and throat pain, two common symptoms of strep throat. Plus, this herb is rich with anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and soothing properties.
- Add 2-3 teaspoons of dried chamomile flowers to 1 cup of hot water.
- Allow the flowers to steep for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Strain the solution and add some lemon juice and honey.
- Drink this tea three or four times a day for 2-3 days.
2. A Spoonful of Honey
Honey is a natural healing agent. It helps keep the throat well moisturized and relieves soreness and inflammation. Honey is a preferable treatment for the cough and sleep difficulty associated with childhood upper respiratory tract infection.
Honey is found to be one of the best wound healers that could speed up the entire healing process.
- Consume 1 teaspoon of honey every day until the coughing and sore throat gets better.
Honey can also be used with lemon in order to have significant effects. The vitamin C in lemon helps combat the growth of bacteria that cause strep throat and promotes overall health.
- Mix 1 tablespoon each of honey and lemon juice in 1 cup of lukewarm water.
- Sip the mixture slowly.
- Drink this as often as needed for several days to treat strep throat.
3. Consume Garlic
Due to its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, garlic is used as a home remedy for many infections, including strep throat. The high sulfur content in garlic improves the immune system functioning and helps the body fight off the infection.
Plus, the manganese, vitamins B6 and C, and selenium in garlic promote general health.
- Peel a fresh garlic clove, slice it in half, and suck on a piece like candy. Occasionally, crush the garlic between your teeth to release its juice. Do this several times a day for a few days for best results.
- Alternatively, bring 1 cup of water to a boil. Add 1 teaspoon of grated garlic, 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon, and a pinch of cayenne pepper to the water. Let it boil for another 2 minutes and then strain it. Drink it warm twice daily until you get relief.
4. Sip on a Cup of Sage Tea
- Add 1 teaspoon of dried sage to 1 cup of hot water. Cover and steep for 10 minutes. Strain the leaves and enjoy your tea. Drink 2 cups of sage tea daily until you recover completely.
- Alternatively, mix 1 teaspoon of salt and juice from half a lemon in 1/2 cup of hot sage tea. Use this solution to gargle three or four times a day for 2 days.
5. Gargle with Salt Water
Another great way to deal with the pain and inflammation associated with strep throat is gargling with warm salt water. The warm water has a soothing effect on the throat and the salt helps kill the bacteria that cause strep throat.
- Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt to 1 cup of water. Stir it well to dissolve the salt.
- Gargle with this solution for a few seconds, and then spit it out.
- Do this at regular intervals for 1 or 2 days.
6. Cinnamon may be Beneficial
Cinnamon is also believed to be very helpful in treating strep throat. It contains powerful antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties that provide relief from various symptoms of strep throat and also boost the immune system for faster recovery.
- Add 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon powder to 1 cup of hot boiling water.
- Allow the mixture to rest for 10 minutes.
- Mix in 1 teaspoon of honey.
- Drink this solution three or four times daily until you notice an improvement.
7. Drink Apple Cider Vinegar in Warm Water
Apple cider vinegar is a wonderful solution for throat discomfort. It possesses antibacterial and other healing properties that help get rid of the bacteria and boost the immune system to fight the infection.
Gargling with warm water helps loosen the phlegm, thus improving your throat condition; however, there have been no significant studies that support this claim.
- Mix 1-3 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar in 1 cup of warm water. Gargle with this solution several times a day for 2-3 days.
- You can also add 1 tablespoon each of apple cider vinegar and honey to a small glass of warm water. Drink this twice daily for a few days until you feel better.
- Drink plenty of water and other fluids to prevent dehydration.
- Use a humidifier to help ease discomfort.
- Eat soothing foods such as broths, soups, cooked cereal, mashed potatoes, soft fruits such as cool grapes, and yogurt.
- Also, try to suck on throat lozenges.
- Stay away from irritants such as cigarette smoke and fumes from paint or cleaning products.
- Avoid smoking and drinking.
These home remedies and tips for strep throat will soothe the symptoms and help in fighting off the infection quickly. Try to get plenty of rest to give your body the strength and energy it needs to fight the infection.
Just like you expect others with a strep throat to be conscientious and cautious enough to avoid passing the bug around, you should extend others the same courtesy if you happen to get infected yourself. Preventing the infection is just as important as containing it.
Trust your doctor to show you the way and determine if you are indeed fit enough to resume your normal routine. Until your doctor gives you the green light, continue with the stipulated medicines and recommended precautions to avoid the risk of infecting others.
Most cases of strep throat tend to resolve within a week of antibiotic treatment and proper care. However, if you do not notice an improvement in your condition or your symptoms become worse, consult your doctor immediately.
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