How Long Does Strep Throat Last?


A woman clutches her throat and purses her lips making a pained face.

Strep throat is a common condition that mostly affects children. It is responsible for up to 40% of sore throats among U.S. children each year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are around 11,000 to 24,000 strep throat infections every year. Although the condition is generally treatable, it still leads to roughly 1,800 deaths in the U.S. annually.

This article will discuss what strep throat is, what its symptoms are, how to identify it, and how to treat it.

What is the Difference Between Strep Throat and a Normal Sore Throat?

A “sore throat” is the general term for any condition where the throat feels scratchy, tender, and possibly painful.

Strep throat, however, is a sore throat caused by a specific type of bacteria. You can find out if your sore throat is strep by getting a rapid strep test.

Key Point: What Are Rapid Strep Tests?

A rapid strep test involves a quick throat swab. Within minutes, the test can show the presence of the group A streptococcus (GAS) bacteria, which can cause strep throat and other infections.

Signs and symptoms of strep throat are very similar to ordinary sore throats, but in general strep throat involves:

  • White patches on the tonsils or back of the throat

  • Just a sore throat without cough/cold symptoms like a runny nose or congestion

  • Swollen lymph nodes (right below the earlobes)

How Do You Get Strep Throat?

Group A Strep lives in the nose and throat and is easy to pass on. The bacteria can be spread through small droplets in the air when an infected person:

  • Talks

  • Coughs

  • Sneezes

In some cases, strep bacteria can also spread through infected sores on the skin.

People can contract strep if they:

  • Breathe in respiratory droplets that have the bacteria in them

  • Touch their mouth or nose after touching something that has those droplets on it

  • Eat from the same plate or drink from the same glass as someone who has group a strep

  • Touch sores on the skin caused by group A strep (impetigo) or touch the fluid that comes from them

Key Point: What is Impetigo?

Impetigo is a contagious bacterial skin infection forming pustules and yellow crusty sores. It is caused by one or both of the following bacteria: Group A Strep and Staphylococcus Aureus.

What Are the Symptoms of Strep Throat?

Most people who contract group A strep show symptoms within two to five days. However, some people don't show signs of being sick or having a fever. These people are less likely to spread strep throat than people who do show symptoms.

In rare cases, people can spread group A strep through food that isn't cleaned or cooked properly.

The severity of a strep throat infection differs from person to person.

A sore throat is one of the mild, and most common, symptoms people experience. Other people have more severe symptoms, such as fever and difficulty swallowing.

Other common symptoms of strep throat include:

  • Trouble swallowing

  • Sudden fever, usually 101˚F or higher

  • Red, sore throat with white spots

  • Headaches

  • Chills

  • Lack of appetite

  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck

Key Point: What is a Lymph Node?

A lymph node is a small bean-shaped structure that is part of the body's immune system.

In the lymphatic fluid, lymphocytes (white blood cells) help the body fight off viruses and bacteria. Lymph nodes are where these white blood cells live.

In some cases a person can have strep throat without a fever, as is often the case with children. Less common strep throat symptoms include:

  • Intestinal symptoms

  • Stomach pain

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

A rash can sometimes appear on a person with strep throat, and this rash is then called scarlet fever, or scarlatina. However, this is quite rare.

If a person has scarlet fever, the rash can show up before other symptoms do, or up to 7 days after. It starts as red areas of skin that develop small bumps.

The rash will likely go away in about a week, but a person may have skin peeling for a few weeks after the infection.

Other symptoms could be signs of a viral infection, not strep throat. A different illness could be at work if any of the following symptoms show up:

  • Cough

  • Hoarse voice

  • Runny nose

  • Conjunctivitis (also known as pink eye)

Also, if you take antibiotics for strep throat when you actually have a meningococcal infection, amoxicillin can give you a rash.

A rapid strep test (or throat culture) can be used to get an accurate diagnosis, so you might want to go to the doctor and get one.

How Long Does Strep Throat Last?

The CDC recommends that people who have strep throat stay home until they haven't had a fever for at least 24 hours and have been taking antibiotics for at least a day.

People who don't get treatment can be contagious until they've recovered completely, even if they don't look or feel sick.

Once a person is infected with group A strep, they can develop symptoms within two to five days. During the two to five day incubation period, a person can spread the strep bacteria to other people.

Most people will need antibiotics to get better and after one or two days they should start to recover.

If your strep throat symptoms persist, you should go back to your doctor and see what they recommend. In some cases they might change the antibiotic, or they might increase the dosage to speed up your recovery.

Looking for a doctor to diagnose and prescribe medication for strep throat and other conditions? Head over to LifeMD.com to schedule an online appointment with a board-certified doctor. Skip the drive to the doctor’s office and take your appointment from your computer, smartphone, or tablet.

How to Treat Strep Throat

It's common for doctors to prescribe antibiotics as a treatment for strep throat because these drugs stop the spread of bacterial infections quickly.

There are seven types of antibiotics that the CDC recommends for strep throat, and they all work in different ways:

7 Strep Throat Treatments

Antibiotic Treatment

How It’s Administered

Penicillin

Oral or intramuscular

Amoxicillin

Oral

Cephalexin

Oral

Cefadroxil

Oral

Clindamycin

Oral

Clarithromycin

Oral

Azithromycin

Oral

Penicillin and amoxicillin are the most common medicines used to treat strep throat. If you're allergic to either, your doctor may give you a different medicine, like the antibiotic azithromycin.

Depending on where you got your strep throat from, your doctor might choose a different antibiotic, because your specific strain might have become resistant to a certain antibiotic.

How Can I Prevent Getting Strep Throat?

There isn't a vaccine for strep throat, but there are some ways that people can limit their chances of getting strep throat. These include:

  • Regularly washing your hands (use hand sanitizer if you don’t have soap and water)

  • Not sharing drinks or food with someone who has strep throat

  • Not sharing towels, sheets, or pillowcases in your home if someone has strep throat

  • Washing dishes and laundry in hot and soapy water

Parents can keep strep throat from infecting other family members by:

  • Separating their child’s dishes from others

  • Not sharing their child’s food, drinks, napkins, cloths, or linens

  • Having their child cover their coughs and sneezes

  • Enforcing regular hand washing among everyone in the household

  • Changing their child's toothbrush after they've finished their course of antibiotics

Key Point: A Top Tip for Sneezing and Coughing

If you have strep throat, be sure to sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow or a tissue, instead of your hand. And make it a point to wash your hands often.

Where Can I Learn More?

If left untreated, strep can cause complications, such as kidney inflammation or rheumatic fever.

Luckily, there are medications you can take for strep throat — and symptoms should start to go away within a couple of days after beginning a course of antibiotics.

If you're experiencing symptoms of strep throat, head over to LifeMD.com to schedule a video appointent with a board-certified physician.

Dr. Anthony Puopolo

Dr. Puopolo holds a B.A. in Biology from Tufts University, M.A. in Biology from Boston University, and Doctor of Medicine from the Boston University School of Medicine. He also completed a Family Medicine and Psychiatry residency program in the U.S. Army.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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