“Mom, my throat hurts.”
How many times do we hear this in a year? Especially right now, in this weird transition between winter and spring. It’s the time of year when germs just seem to run amok, and then to pour lemon juice on a papercut, pollen comes swooping in!
Coughs, sore throats, fevers and headaches, noses that run like a faucet in all the yuckiest colors of the rainbow – we see it all here at High Hopes, especially in the winter and spring. But there’s one kind of sore throat that is unarguably the worst of them all: strep throat.
So how can you tell the difference between strep throat, allergies, a cold, or even a stressed out set of vocal chords from a little too much “How Far I’ll Go” karaoke? What can you do about it if it is strep throat? Just how worried should you be about strep?
This blog post will do its best to answer those questions and more.
So What Exactly Is It?
Strep throat is a bacterial infection. Most sore throats are caused by viruses, usually some variation of the common cold, but strep is a whole different animal. Literally! Bacteria are unicellular prokaryotic organisms, which is a scientific way to say they’re really really tiny and simple living creatures.
Human bodies are the prime home environments for many bacteria. We serve as their food and their incubators. And Group A Streptococcus are the “Love It or List It” of bacteria families. They’ll move right into your nose, throat, and tonsils and settle in, and then they’ll take over the whole neighborhood.
About 5 out of 20 children with sore throats are playing host to these bacteria, and 2 out of 20 adults with sore throats too.
Signs & Symptoms
Strep throat is famous for the throat pain it brings, topping out on the sore throat pain scale for many children and adults. So much pain and swelling in the tonsils and throat can cause difficulty swallowing, a decrease in appetite, and general irritability, especially in young children.
But the pain isn’t the only symptom to watch out for. Strep throat is accompanied by a fever, which can often climb to above 101°F and last for two full days or more. In addition, headaches plague many suffering from a strep infection, and some complain of nausea and stomachaches. Young children may even experience vomiting as a result of strep.
Telltale visual signs of strep throat may also appear in the mouth, in the form of white streaks or patches on the tonsils and uvula, or tiny dark red spots called petechiae on the roof of the mouth. Swollen lymph nodes that can be achey or tender often come with strep as well.
In some cases, strep throat can involve sores called impetigo. It may also cause a rash, usually due to a co-occurring infection of scarlet fever. These prominent rashes usually occur primarily on the torso and diaper area. Some have described the distinct presentation of this rash as looking like goose bumps on a sunburn.
Every person will experience strep throat differently. Some people will experience all of these symptoms, some may only experience one or two, and still others may never even notice that they had it at all.
It’s important to remember that not all sore throats are strep throat. The vast majority of sore throats are due to colds, other viruses, or allergies. Most of the time, when coughing, runny nose, hoarseness, and pink eye come with a sore throat, these symptoms point to a cold or virus as the culprit, not group A strep. An exception to this rule is found in infants, in whom thick nasal discharge has been observed as a symptom of strep throat, in combination with other common strep symptoms.
But the best way to tell if a sore throat is strep is to visit your doctor or pediatrician. There are rapid, throat-swab tests that can diagnose group A streptococcal infections within minutes. False negatives are possible, and some cases of strep are harder to pinpoint, so throat cultures are another option your doctor can perform. These lab tests can use fluids from the infected persons’ throat to identify strains of strep that might be rarer or less prevalent.
There are some complications associated with strep, with varying levels of severity. The most common complications are sinus and ear infections, but some more serious complications can occur. This is another excellent reason to visit a doctor anytime you suspect strep.
How Is It Spread? Who Can Get It?
Strep throat is very contagious.
There is no vaccine for strep. No human is truly immune to it, though some are less likely to show symptoms than others. These lucky few are known as asymptomatic carriers, and despite never falling victim to strep’s nasty tricks, they can nevertheless serve as contagious hosts for the bacteria. This is why strep is so difficult to eradicate, and why it seemingly never fails to make the rounds in its favored seasons of spring and fall.
The group A strep bacterium hitches rides in minuscule water droplets. Often called respiratory droplets, these bacteria-laden drops are the result of coughs and sneezes from infected people. They float through the air or land on items and surfaces, then they just wait for some unsuspecting human to breathe them in or touch them. Boom: strep throat.
Pets have never been linked to the spread of strep throat, however, food can rarely be involved if not handled properly. You can also get strep throat from touching the impetigo sores caused by strep.
Children are far more likely to contract strep than adults. Strep’s prime targets are children ages 5 through 15. Children younger than three can be infected, but it is a much rarer occurrence than those in the common age range.
Close contact with infected people is the number one cause for the spread of strep throat. The incubation period for strep throat is one to two days, meaning a person can have strep and be contagious for up to two days before any symptoms arise. This makes it very difficult to prevent or slow down the bacteria’s spread.
Unfortunately, classrooms are the perfect breeding ground for strep, and in those kinds of environments where conditions are more crowded, even adults like teachers and parents are more likely to get strep throat.
Prevention & Treatment
The good news is most strep is very treatable!
The human immune system is actually quite effective against this particular bacterium without any help. Strep throat will normally be defeated by the immune system within a few days of symptoms appearing.
However, common strep strains can often be treated by a short regimen of antibiotics. Once a person has been on antibiotics for 24 hours, they are generally no longer contagious, and their symptoms lessen or disappear completely. Antibiotics can significantly shorten the period of illness and minimize the often very painful symptoms of strep throat.
Some ways to combat the symptoms of strep include saltwater gargles, cough drops, and throat sprays that numb the tissues in the throat. Warm liquids like tea, honey, and soup can relieve a sore throat, as can cold treats like popsicles, ice cream, and milk. Over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers may also be helpful when fighting strep.
You should always consult with a doctor to decide what the best treatment plan is for anyone infected with group A strep.
As always, isolation is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of this contagious disease. It is very important to receive a doctor’s OK before returning to school, work, church, the general public, etc.
Hygiene is another great tactic for preventing strep. Coughing and sneezing into the elbow, good handwashing practices, and responsible sanitizing procedures will go a long way towards nipping strep in the bud. It is also important to never drink after someone showing symptoms of strep throat, or to eat from the same plate.
Here at High Hopes, our “yuck buckets” have likely seen their share of strep-riddled toys, but those toys never make it past one mouth before getting disinfected. We also observe daily handwashing and sanitation procedures to prevent the spread of germs (and bacteria).
And then every Friday, we kill any strep in the room with our weekly “germ bombs,” a citrus-based aerosol hospital disinfectant. Any classrooms with a confirmed case of strep during the week are likely to receive an extra germ bomb as soon as we are aware of it. The health of our students is our top concern.
Strep throat may never be fully eradicated, but we’ll fight it together! Now, we can be more prepared for the moment when a little one issues that famous line, “My throat hurts.” Armed with good information about strep throat, we can be ready to do whatever is necessary to get them well again as soon as possible.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Group A Streptococcal (GAS) Disease. 16 September 2016. Web. 13 March 2018. <https://www.cdc.gov/groupastrep/diseases-public/strep-throat.html>.
—. Worried your sore throat may be strep? 31 January 2018. Web. 13 March 2018.
 John Mersch, MD, FAAP. Strep Throat (Treatment, Causes, Home Remedies). Ed. MD Steven Doerr. 13 December 2017. Web. 13 March 2018. <https://www.medicinenet.com/strep_throat_gas/article.htm>.
 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Strep Throat. 3 January 2018. Web. 13 March 2018. <https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/strep-throat/symptoms-causes/syc-20350338>.