What is Strep Throat? Answers to common questions about Strep throat

You’ve likely had it before or you know someone who has had Strep throat. It’s one of the most common infections. It's estimated that millions of people are diagnosed with Strep throat in the United States each year. Strep throat is a bacterial infection caused by a bacterium belonging to Group A beta hemolytic Streptococcus (GAS). 


Generally speaking, Strep throat affects children more frequently than adults. Approximately, three out of every ten cases of sore throat is classified as Strep throat infection. In this article, we’ll answer your most frequently asked questions about Strep throat. 


Who is at risk for catching Strep throat? 

As we mentioned, Strep throat is one of the most common bacterial infections. But children tend to get Strep throat more frequently than adults. School-aged children are the most vulnerable to Strep throat among children. To no surprise, parents of school age children are also more likely to get Strep throat. It seems that sharing crayons isn’t all that gets passed around in school. 


Compared to younger children (less than 5 years old), kids aged 5-15 years old have a higher risk of Strep throat infection (24% risk for younger children vs 37% risk for school-aged children). 


Adults are the least affected age group with a risk of getting Strep throat ranging between 5-15%. Although as we mentioned before, parents of school-age kids are at a higher risk of getting a Strep throat infection. Strep throat infections are generally more common in late winter and early spring. 


How can I tell the difference between Strep throat and other other causes of sore throat? 

A lot of factors can cause a sore throat. Think everything from environmental irritants, allergies,  having the flu or the common cold, to sleeping with your mouth open. 


Despite the fact that Strep throat is the most common bacterial cause of sore throat, the most common causes of sore throat in general are viruses. That's why Strep throat can sometimes be  misdiagnosed as a viral infection, like infectious mononucleosis or hand-foot-and-mouth disease. 


The seasonality (late winter and spring) and the symptoms can help in distinguishing these infections from a true Strep throat infection. Strep throat is characterized by having a rapid onset of symptoms, high fever (over 100°F), and intensely red inflamed tonsils. 


On the other hand, another virus with Strep-like symptoms is infectious mononucleosis. This is most common among teenagers and young adults (college students seem especially susceptible to a mono infection), and causes more fatigue and greater swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck (cervical lymphadenopathy) than a Strep infection.


Hand-foot-and-mouth disease is characterized by painful oral lesions and rash in the hands and feet, and is more common in babies and young children under five. Also highly contagious, this virus typically resolves itself with time. 


How to diagnose Strep throat? 

Strep throat is diagnosed using a rapid antigen detection testing (RADT). Your doctor swab your throat and will review the results of the test to determine whether it is a Strep throat infection. If the rapid test comes back negative but Strep throat is still suspected, your doctor may take a throat culture swab. The procedure is the same but this gives the bacteria on the swab more time to develop. These results usually come back within 24 hours. 


If you have a positive case of Strep, the doctor will prescribe a course of antibiotics. After starting antibiotics, you should start to feel better within a day or two. It’s important to finish your course of medication completely so that the infection doesn’t return. 


Those who test positive but don’t show symptoms are called carriers. Usually those who are asymptomatic carriers are generally not prescribed antibiotics. If symptoms do develop, it’s important to let your doctor know.


Is a tonsillectomy recommended for recurrent Strep throat infections? 

A tonsillectomy (removing the tonsils) is an invasive procedure and should be considered only after careful assessment and discussion with your doctor. Children typically bounce back from a tonsillectomy much quicker and easier than adults. 


You may be a candidate for a tonsillectomy if you have a certain number of recurring Strep throat infections over the course of a year. Your doctor will determine how many infections are too many, warranting surgery. If you develop an abscess on your tonsils or throat, this may make you eligible for a tonsillectomy as well.


Those who are allergic to any medication used to treat Strep throat infections are also good candidates for a tonsillectomy. 


Strep throat can knock you down, but not out. A quick diagnosis and a course of antibiotics will have you feeling better in no time.