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How to Treat Strep Throat: Treatment, Prescriptions and Natural Remedies

How to Treat Strep Throat: Treatment, Prescriptions and Natural Remedies

Sore throats are a common ailment - you may be experiencing allergies; you may have a cold or flu; or, you may have just used your voice too much. One of the most common causes of a sore throat, however, is strep throat. In fact, reports suggest that about 15 percent of all sore throats are associated with strep throat.

While strep throat is most common in children and teens between the ages of 5 and 15, anyone can contract the infection. Let’s take a closer look at strep throat, its causes, its symptoms, and what you can do to treat and prevent it.

What is Strep Throat?

Strep throat, medically known as streptococcal pharyngitis, refers to inflammation of the throat caused by a bacterial infection. The infection leads to swelling in your tonsils and in the mucus membranes that line the back of your throat. This swelling causes an itchy, sore and swollen sensation in the throat.

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Strep Throat Symptoms

The symptoms and severity of strep throat vary from person to person and depend on age. The primary symptoms of strep throat are a sore and itchy throat. The tonsils on the back of your throat may look red and swollen and have patches of white. This sore throat often comes on suddenly and can be accompanied by painful swallowing.

Strep Throat Symptoms in Adults

While the most universal symptom of a strep throat is an itchy and sore throat, there are some other symptoms that you might experience. These may include:

  • The sudden onset of a fever that is 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • General Fatigue
  • Voice change/scratchy throat
  • Headache
  • Chills and shaking
  • Appetite loss
  • Tender, swollen lymph nodes on either side of the neck
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • A skin rash (known as scarlet fever)
  • Small red spots on the roof of your mouth

Painful swallowing may make it more difficult to take in food and fluids, so many individuals may exhibit varying stages of dehydration.

Some people who have contracted strep throat will have bad breath from the white patches or deposits on the tonsils. While coughing dislodges these deposits, microscopic food particles can get trapped in the deposits. The bacteria can eat these food particles, which results in them releasing gas and produces the bad breath.

Adults are more likely to exhibit milder forms of these symptoms, mainly a mild sore throat, but you may still experience severe symptoms.

Strep Throat Symptoms in Children

Symptoms of strep throat in toddlers, kids and adults differs from person to person, but again, are mainly categorized by the sudden onset of a sore throat that appears red with patches of white. The sore throat makes swallowing painful or difficult.

The variety of symptoms a child might experience includes all of the symptoms listed above, as well as:

  • Swollen tonsils
  • Joint stiffness
  • General discomfort

Its important to note that not all sore throats are strep throat. Most sore throats are actually caused by viral infections, not bacteria. Sore throats caused by viruses can be just as painful and uncomfortable.

If your child has a sore throat that is accompanied by cold symptoms, like sneezing, coughing, a runny nose, or red eyes, they are most likely suffering from a viral infection, which should generally resolve on its own over time without treatment.

If you are not sure about your child’s symptoms, it’s wise to err on the side of caution and book an appointment to determine the cause of symptoms.

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Strep Throat Causes

Strep throat is a bacterial infection caused by a species of bacteria known as Streptococcus pyogenes, also known as Group A Streptococcus (GAS). This is the more common bacteria and main cause of most cases of strep throat. Streptococcus pyogenes is also responsible for:

A second species, simply known as group B Streptococcus, is rare and associated with more serious conditions, including blood infections and meningitis, which is an infection of membranes in the spinal cord and brain.

Group A Streptococcus has the unique ability to invade epithelial cells, which refer to cells lining organs and glands as well as the outer surface of your body. They tend to colonize the upper respiratory tract with most strains involved in respiratory and skin infections. Typically the bacteria will be caught through contact with respiratory droplets in the air. This is why it’s important to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze - so that you can prevent others from contracting your infection.

How Does Strep Throat Spread?

The Streptococcus bacteria is highly contagious, and as often as it happens to kids and teens, it can happen to just about anyone at any age. While there are documented cases of Streptococcus outbreaks originating in food and water, the occurrence would be rare in modern practice.

Streptococcus pyogenes can be spread via one-on-one contact. That includes kissing, hugging, or shaking someone’s hand. Once the bacteria is on your hands, it can reach your nose or your throat when you touch your face or eat food with your hands. The bacteria can also survive for some time on objects and surfaces, including doorknobs, telephones, water fountains and keyboards. You could contract the bacteria if you touched one of these surfaces and then touched your face.

However, the most common mode of transmission is respiratory droplets in the air. These are droplets that come from a person’s mouth or nose after sneezing or coughing. The strep throat bacteria can easily enter your system should you accidentally breathe in these droplets.

In children, the bacteria is easily spread via these droplets as well as via nasal discharge. This combination is exacerbated by classroom environments that see large numbers of kids in close contact.

In skin infections, the bacteria can exist on the surface of your healthy skin for a week before you even see any lesions, sores, or other symptoms. Streptococci bacteria can also be harbored on fingernails, though these strains of bacteria are more often associated with skin infections like impetigo.

Without treatment, you are likely to spread the bacteria when the symptoms are at their peak. Symptoms can start two to five days after initial exposure. However, even if you are feeling better, you can still infect others for up to three weeks after being diagnosed.

Potential Complications with Strep Throat

Completing the course of antibiotics prevents a strep infection from progressing and causing more serious complications, including:

  • Peritonsillar abscess: – The bacteria may spread to surrounding neck tissue, creating a large, infectious swelling in the neck. This is known as a peritonsillar abscess, and aside from showing as a large mass on the side of the neck, the abscess can make swallowing difficult and even cause breathing problems.

  • Scarlet fever: Scarlet fever is an allergic reaction to the strep bacteria that causes a red rash all over the body. While this is not any more serious than strep throat, kids with scarlet fever may feel sicker and more uncomfortable.

  • Rheumatic fever: In rare cases, the strep bacteria will enter the bloodstream and reach the heart. When it sticks to one of the heart valves, the bacteria infect and create a small mass, creating a wide range of problems. Common symptoms include: persistent fevers, breathing issues, and chest pains.

  • Glomerulonephritis: Glomerulonephritis describes inflammation in the kidneys. This can happen when your body creates antibodies to battle the strep throat infection. Those antibodies may mistakenly attack healthy kidney cells as well, causing them to stop working properly. The main sign that your child may have glomerulonephritis is blood in the urine, which may appear red or dark brown in color.

  • Sinusitis (sinus infection): A sinus infection occurs when your sinuses become blocked, preventing proper drainage. This allows bacteria to grow and spread within your sinuses, leading to a full-blown infection. Symptoms of sinus infection include:

    • Fever
    • Congestion
    • Post-nasal drip
    • Cough
    • Headaches
    • Thick, yellow discharge coming out of your nose
  • Toxic shock syndrome: Toxic shock syndrome is caused by the toxins released by the group A Streptococcus. It is rare but can be potentially life-threatening. Symptoms include:

    • Low blood pressure
    • Rash
    • Fever
    • Eventually multi-organ failure

Thankfully, strep throat can be easily treated with a visit to your doctor before it turns into something worse.

When to See a Doctor for Strep Throat

If you have a sore throat accompanied by a fever you should definitely seek the attention of a medical professional. It’s often difficult to determine if you have strep throat without a medical evaluation. More importantly, the sore throat may point to other, more serious conditions that might require immediate or alternative treatment.

Certain symptoms may also point to more serious problems or complications. You should see a doctor immediately if you experience:

  • A complete inability to swallow liquids or food
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe throat pain
  • An inability to open your mouth
  • Drooling or inability to swallow your saliva
  • Bleeding in your throat or coughing up blood
  • Redness and swelling in your neck
  • Audible noises when you breathe

If you have received treatment for strep throat but your condition hasn’t improved after four or five days you should consider seeing a doctor.

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Strep Throat and Pregnancy: Is it Dangerous?

Strep throat is not dangerous to expectant mothers especially if you consult a doctor and get treated for it as soon as you notice symptoms. Any antibiotics prescribed for strep throat treatment, including penicillin and cephalospori, should be safe for use during pregnancy.

The only symptom that could pose a threat to your baby is a high fever. A high fever during your first trimester may prevent the fetus’ vital organs from developing properly. As soon as you experience fever, do your best to reduce it immediately. If your fever is persistent, consult your doctor to check the health of the growing fetus and for more substantial treatment to neutralize the fever and the infection.

Strep Throat Prevention

The best way to treat strep throat is to make sure you never catch it in the first place. Unfortunately, this may be easier said than done. If possible, stay home from work or school until you have received the appropriate treatment.

Make sure that you cover your sneezes and coughs with your sleeves ('sneeze into your elbows') instead of your hands. Children should be taught to do the same. This will reduce the spread of bacteria. It also helps to not share food, drinks, utensils or other objects with friends and family members.

Good hygiene is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of strep throat. Make sure you wash your hands frequently when you have an infection or when there is a known outbreak of strep throat in your area.

Approximately 48 hrs after starting antibiotics make sure to change out your toothbrush. Bacteria still present on the bristles of the toothbrush may re-infect you.

If you think that you may be suffering from strep throat, consult your healthcare professional or an urgent care center immediately.

Diagnosing Strep Throat

The best way to know for sure if you have strep throat is to get a professional diagnosis. Though this may seem intimidating or scary, it’s generally a painless and minimally invasive process. Your doctor will start by judging your symptoms and performing a physical examination. This will help your doctor rule out other possible illnesses such as the common cold.

From there, the first test your doctor will perform is the rapid antigen test. During this test your doctor will take a swab sample from the back of your throat. The physician will then test the swab to identify any antigens. The test takes just a few minutes and will provide you with a definitive diagnosis.

If the rapid antigen test comes up negative and your doctor still suspects strep throat they may proceed with a throat culture, which takes a bit more time. A throat swab sample will be sent to a lab for testing. The swab will be rubbed into a nutrient-rich plate and left to incubate for about two days. The culture will show if you do actually have Streptococcus bacteria in your system.

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Strep Throat Treatment

Once you know for sure that you have strep throat, your doctor can prescribe antibiotics for you. When taking antibiotics, your condition should improve within one or two days (after which point you are no longer contagious. Make sure to take the full course of the antibiotics to avoid a recurring infection.

Some of the most common antibiotics your doctor might prescribe include:

  • Penicillin: Unless you are allergic to it, penicillin is the antibiotic choice for treating strep throat. It was first introduced in the 1940s and has been the primary antibiotic for a wide range of ailments. Since its discovery, penicillin has consistently eliminated group A Streptococcus. There has yet to be a strain of the bacteria grown from a human that is resistant to penicillin.
  • Amoxicillin: Amoxicillin is a broader spectrum form of penicillin, which means it may be more effective or convenient for some patients. Research suggests that a single daily dose of amoxicillin may be just as effective as multiple doses of penicillin taken in a day. Amoxicillin also tends to taste better than penicillin. However, amoxicillin can more commonly cause skin rash and gastrointestinal problems.
  • Amoxicillin Clavulanate Potassium (Augmentin): Marketed as Augmentin, amoxicillin clavulanate potassium is resistant to degradation or damage caused by waste products like beta-lactamase created by Streptococcus. Amoxicillin clavulanate potassium is more frequently used to treat recurring cases of strep throat. Chronic carriers of the group A Streptococcus bacteria are typically prescribed amoxicillin clavulanate. The main side effect of amoxicillin clavulanate potassium is that it can cause diarrhea.

When taken within the first 48 hours of the illness’ onset, antibiotics can reduce the severity of the symptoms and the amount of time they’ll last. Taking antibiotics for strep throat early also significantly decreases the risk of more serious complications and the spread of the disease to others. You should start feeling better and show improvement within a day or two after treatment.

It’s important to continue to take the full course of antibiotics to completely eliminate the strep bacteria from your system. Most antibiotic courses last up to 10 days. Stopping midway may cause a relapse that may lead to even more serious conditions, including kidney inflammation or rheumatic fever.

Your doctor may also suggest some simple over-the-counter medications to relieve pain in your throat and reduce fever. These may include acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Home Remedies and Care for Strep Throat

Barring any serious complications, most symptoms of strep throat in adults can be managed at home alongside an antibiotic prescription. Home remedies can help limit pain and discomfort and manage any associated symptoms. Here are some things you can try to take care of your strep throat at home:

  • Drink plenty of fluids: Fevers increase fluid loss. That combined with the difficulty swallowing means that your body may find itself dehydrating quickly. Drink plenty of water along with high-quality fluids, including warm soup and herbal teas. Avoid coffee and other highly caffeinated beverages, which are natural diuretics, meaning they will make you urinate more and will further dehydrate you. Avoid acidic beverages as well because they might further irritate your sore throat.
  • Consume cold liquids and foods: Cold drinks, popsicles, and ice cream will soothe your throat and numb the soreness.
  • Use a cold humidifier: Humidifiers keep the air in your home moist, which helps to keep your mucus membranes hydrated. Dry mucous membranes are more susceptible to bacteria, so keeping them moist will help you avoid contracting a strep infection.
  • Suck on throat lozenges: Throat lozenges will provide temporary relief for soreness in the throat.
  • Mix about one to two teaspoons of salt in eight ounces of water: Gargle this mixture to soothe your throat and remove some mucus or bacteria.

Above all, make sure you stay at home. Strep throat is highly contagious, so it can easily spread to your friends, family, and coworkers. 48 hrs after starting an antibiotic it is considered safe to return to school or work. If you have to be in public make sure to cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough. Also make sure that you wash your hands before you eat and urge others around you to do the same. Change your toothbrush once you feel better and the strep throat has subsided to limit your risk of re-contracting the infection.

If you suspect you have strep throat and are experiencing any complications or growing discomfort, consult your doctor or visit an urgent care center immediately.

Strep Throat Treatment Online

An online physician is a great way to get treatment for strep throat and prevent the spread of infection.

When you book an appointment with a PlushCare doctor they will discuss your symptoms with you and examine your throat through a video chat or through photos that you can provide. Based on that examination, the doctor will decide the best course of treatment to get you happy and healthy as quickly as possible. One of the biggest benefits to this is that you don’t have to leave the house and can thus avoid spreading your illness to other people.

PlushCare employs doctors from the top 50 medical institutions in the US. This means that you will be getting top-quality care without stepping outside of your front door.

We started PlushCare because we wanted to improve access to affordable healthcare. We want to ensure that you can get treatment as quickly and easily as possible.

Think you may be experiencing strep throat symptoms? Book your appointment and get treatment today.

PlushCare takes content accuracy seriously so we can be your trusted source of medical information. Most articles are reviewed by M.D.s, Ph.D.s, NPs, or NDs. Click here to meet the healthcare professionals behind the blog.

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Margaret A Spera, NP, APRN

Margaret A Spera, NP, APRN

Margaret Spera is a Connecticut-based nurse practitioner. She has worked in hospital settings, family practices and senior care facilities for over 40 years.

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