Article at a Glance

  • Most sore throats are part of a viral cold, but strep throat is caused by bacteria.
  • Sore throats caused by strep generally last longer and aren’t accompanied by other cold symptoms.
  • Most colds can be treated at home, but strep throat will need to be treated by your pediatrician.

What is strep throat?
Step throat is a bacterial infection that is most common in children ages 5 to 15. It spreads to others by coughing, sneezing or through sharing things like utensils or food. The infection typically spreads when large groups of children are close together.

What is the difference between a sore throat and strep throat?
A common, viral cold can cause a sore throat, so it can sometimes be hard to tell. But there are some symptoms you should be on the look out for.

Most often a sore throat is just part of a cold and for the first 48 hours it is often the main symptom. If your child develops other symptoms like a cough, hoarseness, red eyes, and runny nose, it is probably just a viral infection.

However, if the sore throat lasts longer than five days and continues to get worse or the fever lasts longer than three days, it may be strep. Symptoms of strep throat also include fever, rash, headache, sore glands, red and white patches in the throat, swollen tonsils, abdominal pain, nausea, and loss of appetite.

What do I do if I think my child has strep throat?
If you think it is strep throat, see your pediatrician. During your appointment, your pediatrician will probably do a strep test to determine if it is strep or not. If it is, your child will be prescribed a round of antibiotics. But if it is a viral cold, antibiotics will not be helpful because they only work on bacteria.

It is important to take the full round of antibiotics, even if your child is feeling better. Stopping too soon can cause the infection to return and create antibiotic resistant bacteria. Not finishing the antibiotics or not seeking treatment can lead to problems like rheumatic fever (which can lead to heart disease), blood infections, kidney disease, or scarlet fever.

How can I make my child more comfortable?
Your child will want to be sure to drink plenty of liquids like water, apple juice, or ginger ale. Avoid acidic drinks like orange juice. Warm liquids like chicken broth or hot chocolate can be soothing; but so can milk shakes, cold drinks, and popsicles. Older children can try sucking on hard candy or gargling with salt water. Until the symptoms clear up, it may be a good idea to stick to a soft diet as solid foods may be hard to swallow.

Pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be helpful for severe throat discomfort or fevers greater than 102° F.

How long is it contagious?
After about 24 hours of taking antibiotics, your child will most likely not be contagious. If left untreated, strep throat can be contagious for as long as 21 days.

How do I prevent it?
The best way to prevent strep throat is through good hygiene, especially washing your hands and covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing. If somebody in your home has strep throat, be sure not to share food and keep eating utensils separate from others. And after finishing the round of antibiotics, throw away your child’s toothbrush and get a new one.

More information on how to treat a sore throat or when to see your pediatrician

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