Strep Throat: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment
Pharyngitis is an inflammation of the mucous membranes of the pharynx, i.e., the part of the throat just behind the mouth and nose. It is characterized by a sore throat and difficulty swallowing.
In most cases, pharyngitis is caused by a viral infection such as the common cold or flu. However, in 20% to 30% of children and 5% to 15% of adults, it can be caused by bacteria from the streptococcus family. Read on to find out more about this bacterial infection and how to treat it.
Which strep bacterium causes streptococcal pharyngitis, or strep throat?
The streptococcus bacteria responsible for strep throat is group A beta-hemolytic streptococcus, also known as group A strep.
The bacterium can be present in the nasopharynx (upper part of the throat, behind the nose) and skin of healthy people without causing illness or symptoms. In this case, the person is said to be a “strep carrier.”
When the carrier’s immune system is weakened, for example during a period of intense stress or because they are fighting an illness such as a cold, the streptococcus bacteria can seize the opportunity to multiply and cause an infection.
How is the infection transmitted from one person to another?
Strep throat is spread mainly by droplets expelled when the infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks. It can also be transmitted by direct contact with a contaminated surface or an infected person, for example, through a kiss.
Places where people are in close contact, such as schools, daycare centres, and workplaces, are environments that are conducive to the spread of infections, including strep throat.
How do you know if your sore throat is caused by strep or a virus?
Certain signs and symptoms (or lack thereof) can help determine whether the pharyngitis is more likely caused by strep throat or a virus.
|Strep Throat||Viral Pharyngitis|
In some cases, most often in children, the bacteria can release a toxin that causes a skin rash and inflammation of the tongue, giving it the appearance of a raspberry. This is what is known as scarlet fever, an illness that is usually no more serious than the strep infection itself.
What tests can be done to confirm whether you have strep throat?
It can sometimes be tricky to distinguish between streptococcal and viral pharyngitis. To confirm the diagnosis, an antigen detection test (sometimes called a streptest) or a throat culture can be done.
While a throat culture is the most accurate test, it requires that the sample be sent to a lab, and it takes 24 to 48 hours for the results to come back. Streptests can be performed at the doctor's office, or at a pharmacy in some provinces, and can provide results in approximately 15 minutes.
If your healthcare professional recommends you take a streptest at the pharmacy, they will usually give you a prescription for an antibiotic, instructing the pharmacist to dispense the medication only if the test confirms that it is in fact a streptococcal bacterial infection. If the test is negative, that means the infection is viral, and antibiotics will be of no use, and could even be harmful.
What is the treatment for strep throat?
Most cases of strep throat clear up on their own without the need for antibiotic treatment. However, an antibiotic treatment is recommended to reduce the risk of complications especially in children or adults with chronic health problems.
Depending on the antibiotic prescribed, the treatment usually lasts 5 to 10 days. It is crucial to take all the doses right to the end, even if your symptoms resolve before the end of the treatment. Stopping antibiotic treatment too early increases the risk of bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics.
While you’re waiting for the antibiotic to take effect (or if it is a viral infection you have), an over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be helpful to reduce fever or soothe a sore throat. If it is a young child who is sick, ask your pharmacist for help choosing the right product and determining the correct dose, according to the child's weight.
People suffering from strep throat should also eat soft or liquid foods (which are easier to swallow), drink lots of liquids, and get plenty of rest.
How long is the person contagious?
When untreated, the person will remain contagious until they have recovered, which can take up to two to three weeks. When taking antibiotics, the person is no longer considered to be contagious 24 hours after the start of the treatment. They can resume their normal activities at that time, if they’re feeling up to it.
Your pharmacist is there for you!
Got questions about strep throat and how to treat it? Speak to your pharmacist. They will be able to answer your questions, provide advice on ways to relieve your symptoms, or refer you to the appropriate resources if they believe you need medical care.
The information contained herein is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide complete information on the subject matter or to replace the advice of a health professional. This information does not constitute medical consultation, diagnosis or opinion and should not be interpreted as such. Please consult your health care provider if you have any questions about your health, medications or treatment.