Strep throat

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Strep throat is a bacterial infection that occurs in the throat and tonsils. The infection can cause a sore and ‘scratchy’ throat. Discover the symptoms and how it’s treated.

What is strep throat?

This bacterial infection can make your throat feel sore and scratchy. The bacteria that causes the infection is normally found on the skin and throat and is known as group A streptococcus (or group A strep). 

Strep throat is more common in children and young adults but it can affect people of all ages. It’s also more common in winter and early spring although it can also occur at any time. If diagnosed early, it can be easily treated with antibiotics and complications are rare. If you think you or your child has strep throat, speak to a doctor.

What are the symptoms of strep throat?

The main symptom of strep throat is a sore and ‘scratchy’ throat. Sometimes this can cause problems with swallowing or breathing. 

Other symptoms include: 

  • A high fever (a temperature that’s over 38 degrees celsius) 

  • Red, swollen tonsils 

  • White or yellow spots on tonsils 

  • Appetite loss 

  • Stomach ache 

  • Headache

  • Body aches 

  • Nausea and vomiting 

  • A rash 

Strep throat will cause inflammation of the tonsils and will give them a swollen appearance. The tonsils may also have white or yellow spots (also known as exudate or pus) and have a strong smell. 

Is strep throat contagious?

Strep throat is a bacterial infection, so exposure to this bacteria can result in an infection. Group A strep is normally found in the ears and throat and therefore can easily be spread via droplets when you sneeze, cough or talk. 

It can also spread if someone touches something that has the droplets and then touches their mouth or nose. These different types of transmission mean that strep throat is highly contagious.

How is strep throat diagnosed?

A doctor will ask you about your symptoms and examine the back of your throat if they think you have strep throat. They’ll use the information from the assessment to decide whether strep throat is likely and this will guide your treatment. A swab can be taken from the back of the throat and sent to a laboratory to be tested, but this isn’t routinely done. 

How is strep throat treated?

Antibiotics for strep throat

Most sore throats are caused by viral infections and therefore don’t require treatment. But if a doctor is confident that your sore throat is more likely to be caused by strep throat, they’ll likely prescribe antibiotics as the infection may not go away on its own. A penicillin is the preferred choice of antibiotics but there are alternatives for those who are allergic. 

Over-the-counter remedies 

There are a number of medications that you can get over-the-counter to help with your symptoms. These include: 

  • Ibuprofen or paracetamol to help with pain

  • Liquid antiseptic, which you can gargle 

  • Liquid or spray numbing spray which can ease the pain

  • Saline nasal sprays to clear your airways 

Home remedies for strep throat

There are a number of things you can do at home to help ease your symptoms. Try to:

  • Drink warm liquids to soothe your throat 

  • Use a humidifier to keep your airways moist

  • Gargle a mixture of salt and a small glass of water 

  • Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration 

  • Eat soft foods that are easy to swallow

How common is strep throat?

Strep throat is most common in children between 5 and 15 years old, though adults can get it too. Strep throat is very rare in children under 3 years old.

Can I get strep throat if I don’t have tonsils?

Not having tonsils will reduce your chances of getting strep throat, but doesn’t mean you can’t get it. This is because there are other parts of the throat other than your tonsils that can be infected with the bacteria.

What’s the difference between strep throat and a sore throat?

A sore throat and strep throat can feel very similar. However, there are 5 symptoms that a doctor will look out for that make a diagnosis of strep throat more likely. These are: 

  • White or yellow spots on the tonsils or back of the throat 

  • A sore throat without a cough or cold symptoms (like a runny nose) 

  • A high temperature

  • Swollen glands behind the ears 

  • A rash on your face and trunk that feels like sandpaper (scarlet fever)

When should I seek help?

You should see a doctor if you think you have strep throat – especially if your symptoms have shown for more than 2 days. In particular, look out for the following symptoms: 

  • A high fever 

  • Sore throat with a rash or swollen glands 

  • Any problems with your breathing

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi