Strep throat

Originally Published: January 18, 2002 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: November 23, 2012
Share this

Dear Alice,

What is strep throat, and what can I do to get better?

Dear Reader,

Strep throat can be a real pain in the neck, err, throat, and the streptococcus bacteria is to blame. Streptococcus has hundreds of different strains that are organized into group A and group B. Group A strep (GAS), or streptococcus pyogenes, causes strep throat, as well as scarlet fever, impetigo, toxic shock syndrome, cellulitis, and necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating disease). Group B strep (GBS), or streptococcus agalactiae, causes blood infections, pneumonia, and meningitis. GBS especially affects newborns and their mothers, though serious GBS infections occur in other age groups in both men and women. GAS and GBS infections can range from mild to severe, and potentially become fatal if not treated appropriately.

Symptoms of strep throat include:

  • Severe sore or itchy throat, often with white patches on the tonsils.
  • Fever.
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck.
  • Headache.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain (common in children with the illness).

Strep throat is very contagious, so you might want to warn people you spend time with (roommates, friends, family, coworkers, etc.). If you’re vigilant about hand washing and covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, you won’t risk someone jumping down your throat for getting him or her sick. Strep throat is spread through direct contact, like when mucus from the nose or throat of an infected individual is sprayed into the air through a cough or a sneeze and someone else breathes in the infected droplets. It's also possible to spread strep throat through shared personal items, food or drinks, when secretions from the infected individual end up in the mouth or nose of others.

While you will no longer be contagious between one and three days after treatment begins, symptoms usually subside after about four days. However, the full course of treatment needs to be completed to prevent complications. While on antibiotics, you can help relieve your symptoms by drinking lots of fluids, getting plenty of rest, and taking over-the counter anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Other things that could help you feel more comfortable include using a humidifier and gargling 1/4 teaspoon (1.2 milliliters) of table salt mixed with 8 ounces (237 milliliters) of warm water every few hours.

Untreated strep may lead to more serious illnesses and infections such as rheumatic fever, which causes kidney, joint and heart inflammation, so it’s important to have strep throat diagnosed and properly treated. A health care provider can diagnose strep throat after taking a throat culture with a swab. If the test comes back positive, the most common treatment is antibiotics — usually penicillin (taken orally for ten days or as a one-time intramuscular injection), though other antibiotics can be used too. If you’re a Columbia student, you can schedule an appointment with Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Feel better and hope your throat clears up soon!

Alice