Strep throat, or streptococcal pharyngitis, is an infection of the throat and tonsils caused by the group A streptococcus bacteria. Although strep throat can occur anytime of the year, the incidence always increases in late fall, winter and early spring when children are in close contact at school.
The illness can show up in people of all ages but is most common in school age children. It is spread by contact with the infected respiratory secretions and the incubation period is two to five days. Common symptoms include fever, sore throat, headache and stomachache. Runny nose and cough are not usually associated with strep throat and suggest the cause of the illness might be viral.
A child with strep throat often will have swollen red tonsils covered with pus, bleeding into the skin of the soft palate, a white coating on the tongue and enlarged lymph nodes in the neck. A rash of fine red bumps can develop on the trunk and spread to the extremities. If this occurs in association with strep throat the illness is called scarlet fever.
Because other viruses also can lead to swollen red tonsils covered with pus, it is important that laboratory testing be done to determine if a child has strep throat. Testing is done by swabbing the throat. Numerous rapid tests are available that give a reliable result in 5 to 10 minutes. Throat cultures often are preformed as a back up. These results take two days.
The bacteria that causes strep throat, the group A streptococcus, is very sensitive to antibiotics and can easily be treated with a medication by mouth or a single shot of Penicillin. Children usually feel dramatically better after one day of treatment and can return to school after a full 24 hours on medication.
The importance of treating strep throat, and especially of completing the full course of therapy, is that strep throat can lead to more serious complications, including rheumatic fever, post-streptococcal glomerulomephritis (a kidney problem) and streptococcal toxic shock syndrome.
Tonsillectomy is recommended for recurrent strep throat infections. Removal of the tonsils is usually considered after a child has more than four incidents of strep throat in a year. Family members who carry the bacteria responsible for the virus in their throats without every having symptoms of the infection might be treated to reduce the number of episodes in their children.
Although children can feel very bad with strep throat it is not usually a serious condition, especially when identified early and treated. But, if your child has been exposed to strep throat, watch for symptoms to begin in two to five days later. If your child develops fever, sore throat, headache or stomach ache, he or she should promptly see a physician.