What is Strep Throat and Why is it so Important to Diagnose Quickly?

We’ve all heard the term strep throat, right?  But what does it actually mean?  Is it just another word for a sore throat?  Will it go away if you gargle salt water?  Is it caused from a virus?  Does it even matter?  Most importantly, is it dangerous?

Strep throat is caused from a bacteria called Streptococcus pyogenes, also known as Group A Streptococcus.  It is very important to distinguish the cause of a sore throat because infections caused by bacteria are treated very differently than infectious causes from viruses such that cause the common cold (rhinovirus, adenovirus) or viruses that cause mono (Epstein Barr or cytomegalovirus). 

Strep throat can also present similarly to other causes of sore throat including GERD (reflux), seasonal allergies, and post nasal drip and it is important to distinguish between these causes as well because they’re all treated differently.

So if you have a sore throat due to an infection, is it better to have strep or a virus?  This is a question that doctors are asked frequently, and the answer is…it depends.  If you have access to health care and antibiotics, then strep is the one that we health care providers can treat much more effectively than sore throats due to viruses.  Strep will not just go away by gargling salt water or by drinking tea with honey.  Antibiotics are required to keep you out of harms way and will usually get you feeling better within a day or so in most circumstances.  On the other hand, there is no “cure” for viruses and the best that we can offer is symptomatic improvement while your immune system takes care of the rest.  As my dad used to say, “The common cold lasts a week without treatment and 7 days with treatment.”

What happens if you have strep throat and are unable to access health care or decide that you want to “tough it out?”  Well, if the diagnosis is delayed for a few days, it’s usually not dangerous, but it’s definitely not wise to wait too long.  After about 9 days of leaving it untreated you run the risk of developing long-term kidney problems or rheumatic fever which can cause severe disease of the heart valves.

How do I know if I have strep throat?  Well there are certain signs that can certainly point towards it such as sore throat without cough, fever, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, and white patches on the tonsils, but these are just rough guidelines.  Fortunately, rapid strep tests are readily available and are as simple to use as a pregnancy test for most people.  Rapid strep tests such as this are more likely to accurately diagnose or rule out strep throat than using guidelines based on symptoms alone.

At Home Rapid Strep Test

I hope this helps clarify what strep throat is as well as why it’s so important to diagnose it and treat it as early as possible.  Please feel free to direct any questions or comments to the comment section below and have a healthy and happy new year!

Written By: Dr. Rob Lapporte