Strep throat is a painful condition that often affects children and some adults in the winter and spring months. The condition is just one of the many that can affect the throat.
One method doctors use to diagnose strep throat is a visual examination. Strep bacteria cause irritation, redness, and sometimes the buildup of pus in the back of the throat.
Symptoms of strep throat
Strep throat can cause many uncomfortable symptoms. Examples include:
- Sore throat, often so sore that it causes difficulty swallowing
- Body aches
- Fever, usually higher than 101°F
- Nausea or vomiting
- Rash that feels like sandpaper on the body
- Small, red spots on the roof of the mouth
- Swollen neck glands that feel like small, round bumps
- Tonsils that are swollen
- Tonsils that have white patches or streaks present on them
In very young children, strep throat can also cause increased drooling.
Key visual clues for strep throat
When a person opens their mouth and looks to the back of their throat, there are a few “normal” things most people will see:
- Skin that appears pink in color and is smooth and consistent in texture
- The uvula, a dangling piece of skin in the back of the throat, which is pink and rounded
- Tonsils that are small, flesh-colored pockets of skin (unless they have been removed)
This appearance can change quite a bit if a person has strep throat. When a person with strep throat opens their mouth and views inside, they will likely see:
- The back of the throat is inflamed and reddened. This area is called the soft palate. Some doctors may describe it as “beefy.”
- Tonsils that are enlarged and extend past the soft palate. They may have white or yellow patches or streaks covering them.
- A uvula that appears swollen and red. It may be covered with white or yellow patches.
- The back of the throat may have small red bumps or streaks on it.
It’s possible that a person could have almost the same symptoms with a viral or other infection type. This is why a doctor should conduct a “rapid strep” test of the back of the mouth. This test can determine if strep bacteria are present in the back of the throat.
In addition to a visual exam and quick strep test, there are a few symptoms that could indicate it’s more likely someone is experiencing strep throat instead of another illness. For example, a strep infection is more associated with fever than a viral infection.
Another difference is that strep throat usually doesn’t cause a cough, runny nose, or watery eyes. Viral infections and mucus in the throat from allergies or other conditions are more likely to cause a cough.
When to see a doctor for strep throat
Anyone with a fever greater than 101°F and further strep throat symptoms should see their doctor. The presence of a fever can signal a bacterial infection that antibiotics may be able to treat.
In severe instances, strep throat can cause infections in areas other than the throat. Examples include the ear and, more seriously, the blood.
Having strep throat can also cause inflammation in the body that leads to other, more severe illnesses. These include:
- Kidney inflammation
- Rheumatic fever, an inflammatory condition that can impact a person’s heart and joint health
- Scarlet fever
Because strep throat can cause more severe symptoms and medical conditions, seeking treatment is important. People should get a definitive diagnosis of strep throat, and just having a doctor look at the tonsils isn’t enough.
Antibiotics won’t treat other causes of an irritated throat, and taking medicines that aren’t needed can affect their ability to work when someone really does have a bacterial infection.
If anyone takes antibiotics for a strep throat and doesn’t feel better after about 2 days of taking them, they should call their doctor.
Common conditions that affect the throat
Several medical conditions can cause an itchy, red, and otherwise irritated throat, yet aren’t caused by strep throat. Viruses, bacteria, allergies, exposure to irritating chemicals or smoke, and mucus in the throat can all lead to symptoms like strep throat.
Some examples of other conditions that can affect the throat and may mimic strep throat symptoms include:
The fungus Candida can cause irritation and redness in the throat that mimics strep throat.Candida causes lesions that are white and slightly raised in color in the throat. Irritation and redness can follow. However, infections related to Candida tend to appear all over the mouth, including the gums and roof of the mouth as well as the back of the throat and tonsils where strep throat is more likely to cause symptoms.
Also known as cold sores or fever blisters, herpes is a condition caused by a virus. This condition causes blisters or sore-like lesions. While they often occur on the lips, they can occur in the back of the throat or mouth. Herpes infections can also cause swollen neck glands.
The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is a virus that causes mono. This condition may start with strep throat-like symptoms that progress to longer-lasting symptoms like swollen liver or spleen, extreme tiredness, fever, and sore throat. Mono lasts much longer than a typical strep throat infection, sometimes as long as 6 months. This infection type also won’t respond to antibiotics, and strep throat usually does.
A peritonsillar abscess is a sore that starts to fill up with pus near your tonsils. This can cause inflammation that leads to strep throat. Symptoms include fever, swollen neck glands, and difficult swallowing. However, a peritonsillar abscess usually affects one side of the throat while strep throat affects both sides.
Causes of strep throat
The bacteria belonging to the group A Streptococcus strain cause strep throat. These bacteria are commonly transmitted by contact with an infected person or breathing in the droplets of an infected person.
Sneezing, sharing utensils, or touching an object after an infected person has touched it can all spread strep throat. This is because the strep throat bacteria most often live in a person’s nose and throat.
Strep throat is highly contagious. If a person is diagnosed with strep throat, they should stay away from others until they are free from fever for at least 24 hours and symptoms start improving.
Children are more likely to experience strep throat than adults. They are often in close quarters with each other at daycares and schools. Some children may not have symptoms, but can carry the strep bacteria and expose others to it.