Woke up with a sore throat? It could be the start of a cold or virus—but it also could be a sign you have strep throat, a highly contagious, often painful infection.
So, how do you know the difference, and what should you do if you suspect strep? We talked to Jeffrey Keil, MD, medical director of UNC Urgent Care, to learn more.
1. Strep throat is a bacterial infection.
A common cause of sore throat among children, strep is an infection in the throat and tonsils caused by bacteria called group A Streptococcus, or group A strep. Although it is more prevalent in children, adults can get it, too.
The most common signs of strep are a red, sore throat, difficulty swallowing, swollen tonsils and fever. People with strep may also have swollen lymph nodes and experience vomiting, nausea, headaches and stomach pain, though these symptoms are more common in children than adults.
If you have a runny nose, cough or pinkeye, it’s probably not strep, Dr. Keil says. “It doesn’t mean you can’t have a cold and then develop strep on top of it, but it’s much less likely,” he says.
2. If you suspect strep, get tested.
If you have symptoms of strep throat, you will need a throat swab to confirm a strep diagnosis.
A strep test entails a nurse lightly brushing a cotton swab at the back of your throat to collect a bacterial sample, which is then tested for the group A strep bacteria. Not getting tested can result in serious complications.
“While people can get over strep throat on their own, there’s a small number of cases that, if left untreated, can go on to have complications such as rheumatic heart disease,” Dr. Keil says. “This occurs when the strep bug is bad enough to affect the heart valve,” a complication that can permanently damage the heart.
3. Results can be available in minutes with a rapid strep test.
Although strep test samples used to be sent to a lab for testing, today your provider can have results back in a few minutes.
“Back in the day when I was in training, if it looked like a patient had strep based on symptoms, we would go ahead and prescribe the antibiotics, but the diagnosis was confirmed only after we got the culture results back,” Dr. Keil says.
The rapid strep test doctors use today tests for the genetic components of group A strep bacteria. “It’s very sensitive and specific, and you don’t have to worry about culturing it,” which takes time, Dr. Keil says. Because of this, results are almost instant.
4. Antibiotics will help you recover faster.
Once diagnosed, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics.
“Antibiotics really do help shorten the symptoms,” Dr. Keil says. “Usually, within a few doses of antibiotics, you feel better.”
Still, you should stay home at least 24 hours after treatment begins before returning to school or work to limit the possibility of passing strep onto others.