Strep throat or streptococcal pharyngitis is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation and pain in the throat. This common condition is caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria. It can affect children and adults of all ages. However, it’s especially common in children between the ages of 5 and 15. Sneezing and coughing can spread the infection from one person to another.
There is no definite discovery date for Strep Throat since medical technology was not advanced enough to fully identify the bacteria that caused it, Streptococcus pyogenes. Instead, medical researchers have instead reviewed historical records that include data about a very similar bacterial strand called Streptococcus pyonenes, which causes Scarlet Fever and other diseases. A strand of the bacteria was isolated in 1879 by Louis Pasteur (the same man that invented the technique of pasteurization) from a woman that had contracted Perpueral Fever. Several years later, a scientist by the name of Loffler named the strand Streptococcus pyonenes, a strand with very similar qualities to Streptococcus pyogenes.
Strep throat is one of the most common illnesses in children. In the United States, 15-36% of 7.3 million outpatient visits each year among children were due to S. pyogenes. It is also more common in the northern area of the United States, however it is seen throughout the nation as well as the world.
Risk factors of strep throat
Several factors can increase your risk of infection:
Young age: Strep throat occurs most commonly in children.
Time of year: Although it can occur anytime, it tends to circulate in late fall and early spring. Strep bacteria flourish wherever groups of people are in close contact.
Causes of strep throat
- The cause of streptococcal pharyngitis is bacteria known as Streptococcus pyogenes, also known as group A streptococcus.
- Streptococcal bacteria are highly contagious. They can spread through airborne droplets when someone with the infection coughs or sneezes, or through shared food or drinks. You can also pick up the bacteria from a doorknob or other surface and transfer them to your nose, mouth or eyes.
How strep throat is spread, and is it contagious?
- streptococcal pharyngitis is highly contagious and is most commonly spread via direct person-to-person contact.
- The incubation period (the time it takes from exposure to the infection to the appearance of symptoms) for strep throat is two to five days.
- Passage of airborne droplets and/or saliva from the infected individual to another is the most likely mechanism of contracting strep throat. Close quarters (such as the home, classroom, day care centers, college dorms, etc.) provide an ideal environment for passage of strep bacteria from one person to another.
- The risk of contracting a strep throat infection is approximately 40% in household environments.
- Most infectious disease specialists believe that a patient is no longer contagious after 24 hours of effective antibiotic therapy.
- Spread of strep bacteria via food borne transmission is less common than direct person-to-person exchange of droplets or saliva.
- The exact likelihood of developing strep throat from family pets is unknown, but most experts believe it is minimal.
Symptoms of strep throat
The severity of streptococcal pharyngitis can vary from person-to-person. Some people experience mild symptoms like a sore throat, whereas other people have more severe symptoms including fever and difficulty swallowing. The common symptoms of strep throat include:
- A sudden fever, especially if it’s 101˚F or higher
- A sore, red throat with white patches
- A headache
- A loss of appetite
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- Trouble swallowing
The symptoms of streptococcal pharyngitis typically develop within five days of exposure to the bacteria.
Symptoms of strep throat
Complications related to the strep infection
Although rare, complications can result from the strep infection spreading to other areas of the body. Infection can spread to the:
- Middle ear (otitis media).
- Sinuses (sinusitis).
Other, rare, complications include:
- Infection behind the pharynx (retropharyngeal abscess).
- Infection of the lymph nodes of the neck.
- A per tonsillar abscess.
- Toxic shock syndrome.
Diagnosis and test
Your doctor will conduct a physical exam, look for signs and symptoms of strep throat, and probably order one or more of the following tests:
Rapid antigen test: Your doctor will likely first perform a rapid antigen test on a swab sample from your throat. This test can detect strep bacteria in minutes by looking for substances (antigens) in the throat. If the test is negative but your doctor still suspects strep, he or she might do a throat culture.
Throat culture: A sterile swab is rubbed over the back of the throat and tonsils to get a sample of the secretions. It’s not painful, but it may cause gagging. The sample is then cultured in a laboratory for the presence of bacteria, but results can take as long as two days.
Treatment and medications
If you’re diagnosed with strep throat, your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic to treat the infection. These medications inhibit the spread of bacteria and infections. Several types of antibiotics are available. However, penicillin and amoxicillin are the most common medications given for a strep infection.
It’s important that you finish your antibiotic treatment course to kill the infection completely. Some people stop taking their medication when symptoms improve, which can trigger a relapse. If this happens, the symptoms can return.
In addition to antibiotics, there are at-home treatments to improve the symptoms of strep throat. These remedies include:
- Drinking warm liquids, such as lemon water and tea
- Drinking cold liquids to help numb the throat
- Turning on a cool-mist humidifier
- Taking over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
- Sucking on throat lozenges
- Adding 1/2 teaspoon of salt to 1 cup of water and gargling the mixture
- The best preventive measure against strep throat involves instituting measures to minimize the spread of the illness to others.
- There is currently no vaccine available to prevent strep throat.
- Keep eating utensils, dishes, and drinking glasses separate from any infected person.
- Do not to share food and drinks, napkins, handkerchiefs, or towels because infection may spread by these objects of personal use.
- Cover the mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough, this helps prevent the release of infected airborne droplets.
- Washing the hands frequently will decrease the chances of both the infected person and uninfected individuals from spreading the bacteria to others and uninfected individuals acquiring the infection.