What is strep throat?

Woman checking sick daughters throat

The start of cold and flu season fills many parents with dread, but sometimes those viruses and infections move beyond the average ailments. A throat swab and a quick test at your doctor’s office can reveal one of those illnesses — strep throat.

“The bacteria that cause strep throat (group A streptococcus) tend to hang out in the nose and throat, so normal activities like sneezing, coughing, or shaking hands can easily spread infection from one person to another,” said Dr. Ruben Espinoza, a pediatrician with Banner Children’s Health Clinic in Mesa.

He added that this is why it’s so important to teach kids the importance of hand washing — good hygiene can lessen their chances of getting contagious diseases like strep throat.

According to Espinoza, not all sore throats are strep throats. Most episodes of sore throat — which can be accompanied by a runny nose, cough, hoarseness, and red eyes — are caused by viruses and usually clear up on their own without medical treatment.

A child with strep throat will start to develop other symptoms within about three days, such as:

  • Red and white patches in the throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Tender or swollen glands (lymph nodes) in the neck
  • Red and enlarged tonsils
  • Headache
  • Lower stomach pain
  • Fever
  • General discomfort, uneasiness, or ill feeling
  • Loss of appetite and nausea
  • Rash
  • Change in voice, often muffled sounding

Treatment

In most cases, doctors prescribe about 10 days of antibiotic medication to treat strep throat. Penicillin given by shot is also available and is just as effective as a course of antibiotics. Within about 24 hours after receiving a penicillin shot or starting on antibiotics, your child will probably no longer have a fever and won’t be contagious. By the second or third day after taking antibiotics, the other symptoms should start to go away, too.

“Even if your child feels better, he or she should finish the antibiotics as prescribed. If your child stops taking antibiotics too soon, bacteria can remain in the throat and the symptoms can return,” Dr. Espinoza said.

If your child is not treated for strep throat, he or she is most infectious when the symptoms are the most severe but could remain contagious for up to 21 days, he added.

“Lack of treatment — or not finishing the prescribed course of antibiotics — also could put your child at risk for other health problems, such as rheumatic fever (which can cause permanent damage to the heart), scarlet fever, blood infections or kidney disease,” Dr. Espinoza said.

Caring for Your Child with Strep Throat

You can help your child feel better while battling strep throat.

“Provide plenty of liquids to prevent dehydration, such as water or ginger ale, especially if he or she has had a fever,” Dr. Espinoza said.

Some drinks to avoid:

  • Orange juice
  • Grapefruit juice
  • Lemonade
  • Other acidic beverages

Liquids that can be soothing:

  • Soups or broth
  • Sweetened tea

“With the proper medical care — along with plenty of rest and fluids — your child should be back to school and play within a few days,” Dr. Espinoza said.

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