Strep Throat

Streptococcal Pharyngitis

Medically reviewed by Carina Fung, PharmD, BCPPS

What is strep throat?

Strep throat, or streptococcal pharyngitis1, is a specific type of sore throat caused by a bacterial infection (the bacteria called Streptococcus pyogenes).

Group A streptococcus, also known as GAS, commonly presents with fever, odynophagia (pain when swallowing), and the sudden (acute) onset of a sore throat. Having strep will cause your throat to feel scratchy, sore, and uncomfortable.

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Visually, strep can present itself with red and swollen tonsils (sometimes streaked or patched with white pus) or red dots on the roof of the mouth. These signs, along with throat pain and/or fever, usually call for a trip to the provider.

Strep Throat Symptoms

The symptoms below are associated with, but not specific to, strep throat. If you have a combination of these symptoms, or suspect that you may have strep, talk to your healthcare provider. A provider will be able to test specifically for strep throat.

  • Acute-onset (quickly developing) throat pain
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia2)
  • Pain when swallowing (odynophagia)
  • Red and swollen tonsils, sometimes with white streaks or patches of pus
  • Swollen lymph nodes3 in the neck
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Body aches
  • Conjunctivitis (“pink eye4”)
  • Oral ulcers (canker sores5)
  • Cough
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Rash (somewhat rare, and usually treatable with antibiotics)

How do you get strep throat?

Strep throat can spread through direct person-to-person transmission6. This means that you can catch strep from particles in the air left behind by an infected person’s cough or sneeze (as the bacteria can travel through saliva or mucus) or from surfaces that infected people have come into contact with.

The likelihood of catching strep throat increases in crowded places. Schools, daycare centers, public transportation, and workplaces can all potentially harbor strep bacteria.

As always, it’s important to wash your hands regularly with soap and hot water—especially after touching frequently used surfaces—in order to prevent spreading or catching the illness.

The current time of year can also affect your likelihood of catching strep. Although it can occur in any season, strep throat is often in higher circulation in the winter and early spring. Because bacteria flourish in large groups of people in close contact, the beginning of the school year can present a higher risk of your child contracting strep throat.

If you suspect that you have strep throat, it’s important that you go to your provider in order to receive the proper diagnosis and treatment. If not immediately treated, strep can remain contagious for as long as a few weeks. When treated with the right antibiotic, however, a person with strep can minimize transmission of the illness to others.

The spread of infection can also be prevented by staying away from public places until 24 hours after you have taken antibiotics and when you no longer have a fever.

Who can get strep?

Strep throat most commonly affects children. However, it can affect all age groups.

Strep throat in children under 3 years of age is uncommon, and rarely manifests as acute pharyngitis (inflammation of the back of the throat). It’s rare for children with strep to develop high fevers, and the onset of the illness is often slow enough to allow for immediate antibiotic treatment.

It’s possible for you to be exposed to and infected by someone with strep that is asymptomatic (not showing any signs or symptoms of having strep throat). That’s why it’s important to practice good hygiene and go to the provider if you believe you may have become sick.

Fever and Strep Throat

Some cases of strep throat can present with a fever. This can be dangerous, especially in young children.

If you or your child have strep-like symptoms accompanied by a fever, go to a provider as quickly as possible. Fevers can usually be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers.

In adults, a fever is generally not a cause for concern until your temperature exceeds 103°F (39.4°C). When you have strep throat, however, a fever may be an indication of a more serious secondary infection. Go to the provider if fever develops or worsens while you have strep.

Rash and Strep Throat

Sometimes, strep throat can lead to an illness called scarlet fever which is characterized by the development of a rash. This type of rash feels sandpapery, and presents with red patches and splotches that turn white upon applying pressure.

Scarlet fever rashes generally start on the abdomen and spread outwards. This secondary infection is most common in children 5–15 years of age.

While rare, scarlet fever can be serious and uncomfortable if left untreated. Like strep, scarlet fever is treated with antibiotics. If you or your child experience any of these symptoms, you should go to a healthcare provider immediately for diagnosis and treatment. It may be advisable to go to the emergency room or an urgent care provider rather than seeing a primary healthcare provider, as these symptoms may escalate to rheumatic fever (which could potentially lead to complications like rheumatic heart disease).

Is strep throat contagious?

Yes: strep throat is contagious, and is spread through person-to-person transmission.

Streptococcal bacteria are highly contagious, and can travel through the air in droplets left by an infected person or be deposited on surfaces touched by people with the illness.

You can become contagious if you have been infected with strep bacteria even a few days before you begin to present symptoms. This can make it difficult to prevent the spread of the illness to others.

Strep throat can remain contagious for up to 2–3 weeks in someone who has been infected and has not received antibiotic treatment. People who do receive antibiotic treatment, however, are generally no longer contagious 24 hours after beginning treatment.

Disclaimer: The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.