Strep Throat in Adults: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment
Sore throats are a common ailment, a symptom of everything from colds to sinus infections to simply talking too much. One of the most common causes of a sore throat 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, just about anyone can pick it up, including adults. Let’s take a closer look at strep throat, what causes it, 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 an 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, leading to the characteristic itchy, soreness.
What Causes Strep Throat in Adults?
Strep throat is caused by Streptococcus bacteria. There are two main types of this bacteria. Group A Streptococci (GAS), known as Streptococcus pyogenes, is the most common of the two species and tends to be the main cause of strep throat along with several other diseases, including scarlet fever, toxic shock syndrome, and certain skin infections like cellulitis and impetigo.
Group B Streptococci is more associated with bacterial pneumonia, blood infections, and meningitis, a condition referring to the infection of membranes around the spinal cord and brain.
Streptococcus bacteria is highly contagious. You are most likely to contract strep throat when you come into contact with someone who is carrying the bacteria. That’s why it’s most common in school children as large groups of kids in close quarters makes the perfect environment for dispersal. The spread of the infection is more likely when the symptoms are most severe, though you can still infect those around you for up to three weeks.
The Streptococcus bacteria tend to congregate around the mouth, nose, and throat. This means it can easily spread via water droplets from sneezing or coughing. It can also easily spread from touching a doorknob, phone, or other object that has been in contact with someone who has strep throat. You can feel sick within five days of the bacteria actually entering your system.
Signs and Symptoms of Strep Throat in Adults
The symptoms and severity of strep throat can vary from person to person based on age. The primary symptom of strep throat in all cases is a sore, itchy throat. Your tonsils and 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.
Other symptoms that you may experience when you have strep throat include:
- A sudden onset fever that is 101 degree Fahrenheit or higher
- A headache
- General malaise
- Chills and shaking
- A loss of appetite
- Tender, swollen lymph nodes on either side of the neck
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Small red spots on your soft or hard palate (meaning the roof or your mouth)
- A skin rash (known as scarlet fever)
The 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 producing 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.
Diagnosing Strep in Adults
Diagnosing strep throat based on symptoms alone can be difficult for physicians and healthcare professionals. The symptoms of strep throat often coincide with symptoms of the common cold.
Diagnosing strep throat starts with a simple physical exam that may proceed to tests. Your doctor will probably order a rapid antigen test first. This test uses a swab sample from your throat to detect potential strep bacteria by identifying antigen in your throat.
If the rapid antigen test proves negative but your doctor still suspects strep throat, they may create a throat culture. Your physician rubs a sterile swab over your tonsils and the back of your throat to get a sample of the bacteria and secretions. The sample is placed on a special plate and incubated. If you have strep, the bacteria will grow on the plate within two days.
Neither of these two tests presents any risks or complications. Neither test is painful either, though the swabbing may cause you to gag.
When to See a Doctor for Strep Throat
If you have a sore throat accompanied by a fever, you should absolutely 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 moth
- 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 doesn’t get any better within four or five days, you should consider seeing a doctor.
Potential Complications of Strep Throat
As long as you treat strep throat, your condition should improve within a week. However, if left untreated, strep throat can lead to some serious complications to your health. These include:
- Acute rheumatic fever: Rheumatic fever occurs when the antibodies fighting the strep infection begin to mistakenly attack cells in your skin, joints, and heart. Damage to your heart’s muscles and valves may result in congestive heart failure. Acute rheumatic fever thankfully isn’t common thanks to the advent of antibiotics, but it’s still possible. The symptoms of acute rheumatic fever develop two to four weeks after strep throat’s onset.
- Poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis: Poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis is noted by damage to the kidneys and is most common in kids 2 to 12 years old.
- Abscess: A deposit of pus, known as an abscess, may develop on the tonsils or at the back of the throat, causing pain and discomfort. Abscesses require antibiotics and drainage.
- Scarlet fever: A progression of strep throat, scarlet fever comprises a sore throat and fever combined with a characteristic red rash that is rough and feels like sandpaper. It occurs mainly in kids younger than 18 but is thankfully highly responsive to antibiotics.
- 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, and eventually multi-organ failure.
- 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: congestion, post-nasal drip, cough, headaches, and a thick, yellow discharge coming out of your nose.
Common Treatments for Strep Throat in Adults
Treatments for strep throat aim to neutralize the infecting bacteria while helping to manage any uncomfortable or severe symptoms. The main treatment for strep throat involves oral antibiotics, usually penicillin or amoxicillin.
When taken within the first 48 hours of the illness’ onset, the 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.
However, it’s important to continue and 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. This may include acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
Home Remedies and Care for Strep Throat
Most cases of strep throat in adults can be managed at home unless you experience any of the serious complications listed above. Home remedies tend to center around controlling pain and discomfort and managing any associated symptoms. Some things you can do at home to take care of your strep in adults:
- Drink plenty of fluids: Fevers increase fluid loss. Combine that with the difficulty swallowing and 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 pee more, further dehydrating you. Avoid acidic beverages, which may only further irritate your sore throat.
- Consume cold liquids and foods: Cold drinks, popsicles, and ice cream can sooth your throat and numb the soreness.
- Use a cold humidifier: Humidifiers can keep the air in your home moist, which results in moister mucus membranes. Dry mucus membranes are more susceptible to bacteria.
- Suck on throat lozenges: Throat lozenges can 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. If you have to be in public, cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough or wear a face mask. Make sure you wash your hands before you eat and urge others around you to do the same. Switch out your toothbrush once you feel better and the strep throat has subsided.
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.