Is It A Cold…Or Is It Strep?

Black African woman with sore throatStrep throat is a common bacterial infection that impacts the throat and tonsil areas. Although many people have heard the term, the details of this infection are often not widely understood.

Causes and Diagnosis

Strep throat is caused by the streptococcal bacteria, of which there are several kinds. Although some individuals with sore throats may believe that they have strep throat, it can only be identified with a throat swab and/or a laboratory test. A “rapid strep test” can often be performed right in the physician’s office. If this test is positive, treatment is indicated. If it is negative, a throat culture is often sent out to a laboratory for confirmation since the rapid tests can sometimes show “false negatives”.  The laboratory will then provide information regarding what antibiotic medications will be effective against this particular strain of bacteria.


Strep throat is often characterized by the sudden onset of a very sore throat with significant difficulty swallowing (also known as dysphagia). Fever over 101 degrees F is common, as are swollen tonsils, swollen lymph nodes, and a very red throat which may or may not show white patches. Headache is common, although symptoms like abdominal pain and nausea and vomiting are more rare.

How Is It Passed From Person to Person?

Strep bacteria can be passed through sneezing, coughing, kissing, or even breathing. Respiratory droplets from the infected person enter the air and can then be breathed in by others. Proper coughing and sneezing techniques (doing so into the crook of your arm/elbow rather than into your hand or the air) can decrease the possibility of you passing on the illness to others.

Bear in mind that you can have strep and be contagious but be free of symptoms for up to five days, so practicing good hygiene is essential. If you sneeze into your hand or use a tissue, wash your hands thoroughly right away. Respiratory droplets left behind on faucets, doorknobs and other “high touch areas” can also infect others for a brief time until the bacteria die.


Infections with strep are usually treated with antibiotics. Although it can sometimes resolve without such treatment, some potentially serious complications may result. If you go untreated, you can be contagious to others for a number of weeks, even after your symptoms go away. However, if you take antibiotics, you are generally considered not contagious 24 hours after beginning treatment.

If antibiotics are prescribed, please take the entire course, even after your symptoms improve. Otherwise, the infection may not be entirely taken care of, and the strain of strep in your body may then build up resistance to the medication you were taking. You can then pass on this resistant strain to others.

A doctor or nurse may also recommend a non-steroidal medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen for control of pain related to the infection, as well as the muscular aches and pains that can accompany it.


An individual with strep should use disposable tissues, napkins and paper towels. They should also avoid sharing eating utensils, cups and glasses, and toothbrushes with others. The sick individual should wash their hands often, especially after touching their face or mouth, sneezing, coughing, or blowing their nose. Those individuals in close contact with the sick individual should also practice excellent hygiene, and wash their hands with soap and hot water or hand sanitizer as often as possible.


Some complications of strep throat can be infections of the tonsils, sinuses, skin, blood and middle ear, and other inflammatory conditions may result, including rheumatic fever, scarlet fever, and kidney inflammation. These post-strep complications are uncommon in countries where treatment with antibiotics is high.