What Is Strep Throat?

An overview from symptoms to treatment

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Strep throat is a highly contagious infection caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria (Streptococcus pyogenes), common in children but affecting adults too. Strep throat symptoms include a sore throat and a fever, as well as throat swelling, a swollen uvula, or swollen tonsils.

Healthcare providers use several tests to diagnose strep throat. It is treated with antibiotics, while medications and home remedies can help people to cope with symptoms until the infection clears. It's uncommon, but strep throat can cause serious complications.

This article will talk about what strep throat is and how you catch it. You will also learn about how your healthcare provider can tell if you have strep throat and what treatments you might need. There are also some steps that you can take to prevent strep throat.

What Strep Throat Looks Like
Verywell / Emily Roberts

Strep Throat Symptoms

If you catch strep throat, you will usually start feeling sick two to five days after you are exposed to the bacteria that causes the infection. There are several symptoms of strep throat, but the most common is a very sore throat.

Other symptoms of strep throat are:

  • Difficulty swallowing or pain when swallowing (which might also be felt in the ear on the same side)
  • Fever (101° F or higher)
  • Red, swollen tonsils that may have white patches or streaks of pus on them
  • Tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth (called petechiae)
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the front of the neck
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain

How Long Is the Contagious Period of Strep Throat?

Strep throat is highly contagious through airborne particles, touching a contaminated surface, or sharing personal items like food utensils. You'll feel sick about two to five days after exposure. After 24 to 48 hours of taking antibiotics, the infection should no longer be contagious. Good hygiene practices, such as hand washing, will help with strep throat prevention.

What Can Be Mistaken for Strep Throat?

Strep throat is not the only infection that can cause a sore throat. In fact, viral illnesses that cause a sore throat are more common than strep throat.

There are a few ways that strep throat is different from a sore throat from a viral infection, and these symptoms can help you to know if you have strep throat.

Strep throat may start suddenly with a fever. Sore throats from viral infections tend to happen gradually. If you have strep throat, you usually do not have a cough. A sore throat from a virus is more likely to have a cough with it, along with other cold symptoms like:

  • A runny nose
  • A hoarse voice
  • An eye infection commonly called "pink eye" (conjunctivitis)

The main symptom of strep throat is a sore throat that starts suddenly with a fever and chills. Your tonsils might be red and swollen. They might also have white streaks or pus on them. You might also have fatigue and a headache, but cough is usually not a strep throat symptom.


Strep throat spreads in saliva or other body fluids that have group A Streptococcus bacteria in them. If someone who has strep throat coughs or sneezes around you, it can expose you to the bacteria as it spreads through the air. You can also pick it up if you touch people or objects with bacteria on them.

Strep throat is very contagious. It's easily spread from one person to another. Some people are more likely to catch strep throat than other people, including people with weak immune systems, people having chemotherapy, babies, and people who are pregnant.

If someone in your home catches strep throat, there are steps you can take to lower your chances of catching it:

  • Do not share personal items, like towels, drinking cups, and eating utensils, with the person who is sick.
  • Wash clothes and bedding in hot water.
  • Keep your hands clean (that means washing your hands correctly and often).

Can You Be Around Someone With Strep Throat?

Someone with strep throat has the bacteria in their saliva and other body fluids. If they cough or sneeze, they can easily spread it to people. Sharing drinks or touching objects they've used also spreads infection. Avoid catching it from someone in your home by not using the same personal items, washing clothes and bedding in hot water, and washing your hands often.


Your healthcare provider can usually tell if you have strep throat. An expert in throat health, called an otolaryngologist, can also diagnose the infection.

They will ask you about your symptoms and look at your throat and neck. They will look for signs of strep throat, including:

  • Redness, swelling, or white patches that look like pus in the throat or on your tonsils
  • A rash on your body that started on your neck and chest 
  • Red spots on the roof of your mouth (petechiae)
  • Swollen tonsils (tonsillitis)
  • Lymph nodes that are swollen

Your healthcare provider might do some tests to figure out if you have strep throat. These strep throat tests may include:

  • A rapid strep test uses a sample of saliva from the back of your throat. The results only take a few minutes, but sometimes, they are not right. A rapid strep test might say that you do not have strep throat when you really do. This is called a false-negative test result.
  • A throat culture uses a sample of tissue taken from the back of your throat using a swab. The sample is sent to the laboratory where technicians will look at it to see if any bacteria is growing. The results take several days to come back, but it is the most accurate test for strep throat.


Before your healthcare provider decides on treatment, they will want to make sure that you do not have a sore throat for another reason. For example, a viral illness cannot be treated with antibiotics.

However, if you have strep throat, it means you have a bacterial infection. In this case, you would need an antibiotic. There are different antibiotics that treat strep throat, including:

Your healthcare provider will look at your medical record and talk to you about your health before they decide which antibiotic to give you. For example, if you are allergic to penicillin, they can prescribe you a different kind of antibiotic.

Sometimes, antibiotics are not strong enough to clear up a strep throat infection. This is called antibiotic resistance. If you are being treated for strep throat but your symptoms do not get better, your healthcare provider will change your treatment.

You should stay home with strep throat until you've taken antibiotics for 24 to 48 hours. After that, you aren't contagious and can't spread strep throat to other people.

It is important to take your antibiotic prescription exactly as instructed. You need to finish all of the medication—even if you start to feel better.

If you stop taking the antibiotics too early, the infection might not clear up. Instead, it might get worse. You could also have serious complications from the infection.

Strep throat symptoms like fever, muscle aches, and a headache can usually be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) medicine like ibuprofen. Strep throat home remedies, like having cool drinks or ice pops, can also help to ease throat pain.

Getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated, and eating nutritious meals (even if it hurts to swallow) will also help your body to recover.

Does Strep Throat Go Away on Its Own?

Strep throat symptoms can go away without treatment, usually within a week, but strep throat that's left untreated can lead to more serious conditions. For example, children with a red-bump rash may have strep that's led to scarlet fever. It's important for people to be accurately diagnosed and treated by a healthcare provider.


Strep throat usually gets better in about a week as long as you follow your healthcare provider's instructions. Most people who get strep don't have any serious side effects or long-term problems from the illness.

Your provider will let you know how long you should stay home to recover and when you can go back to your normal activities. Follow these directions even if you start feeling better sooner. This will ensure you do not spread the infection to other people or push yourself too much before you're fully recovered.

If you are sticking to your treatment plan but don't feel better or you start to feel sicker, tell your provider right away. You might need a different treatment to make sure the infection clears up and prevent complications.

If you follow your treatment plan for strep throat, you should feel better in about a week. If you are not feeling better or feel worse, tell your provider right away. You might need a different treatment.


Strep throat is a common infection that is caused by bacteria. The most common symptom is a very sore throat. Your tonsils may also swell up and have pus on them. Healthcare providers can test for the infection by taking a sample from the throat and seeing if bacteria is growing in it.

Since strep throat is caused by bacteria, it can usually be treated with antibiotics. Home remedies and OTC treatments, like cool drinks and ibuprofen, can relieve symptoms.

Most people recover from strep throat in about a week and do not have any long-term problems. However, if a person stops their prescribed treatment too soon, the infection might not get better. They could also develop serious complications.

A Word From Verywell

Antibiotic medication will clear up your strep throat infection, but be sure to take all the doses that have been given to you even if you start feeling better within a few days. It's not common to have serious complications from a case of strep throat, but it can happen. Let your healthcare provider know if you are following your treatment plan but don't feel better or start feeling worse.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does strep throat last?

    Many cases of strep throat symptoms last for one week. Untreated strep throat can lead to severe complications, including kidney disease, guttate psoriasis (skin condition), abscesses near the tonsils, rheumatic fever, and scarlet fever.

  • What is the best antibiotic for strep throat?

    Antibiotics used for strep throat are different, and treatment choices are not the same for everyone. For example, you may have an allergic reaction to one medication and need to be treated with another. Your healthcare provider will choose an option from commonly prescribed antibiotics.

  • What does strep throat look like?

    Strep throat can cause the tonsils to become red, swollen, and show white patches of pus. Additionally, small red spots called petechiae can appear on the roof of the mouth, the uvula may become swollen, and lymph nodes at the front of the neck also become swollen. You may have a rash as well.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Martin JM. The mysteries of streptococcal pharyngitisCurr Treat Options Pediatr. 2015;1(2):180-189. doi:10.1007/s40746-015-0013-9

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Group A streptococcal (GAS) disease.

  3. Penn Medicine. Strep throat (streptococcal pharyngitis).

  4. MedlinePlus. Strep Throat.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Strep Throat: All You Need to Know.

  6. Wessels MR. Pharyngitis and scarlet fever. In: Ferretti JJ, Stevens DL, Fischetti VA, editors. Streptococcus pyogenes: Basic Biology to Clinical Manifestations. Oklahoma City, OK: University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  7. Yale Medicine. Strep Throat.

Kristin Hayes

By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.