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Why Is Strep Throat Contagious And How Does It Spread?

Updated on December 20, 2016

Why Is Strep Throat Contagious And How Does It Spread?

This infection is contagious and can easily spread from a person to person making people around you vulnerable. It’s particularly important to know what the infection is and how you can keep yourself and your family safe.

How Long Does Strep Throat Last?

Strep throat is contagious in nature but its contagion part is tricky. The symptoms of strep throat appear 2 to 5 days after the GAS bacteria have infected you. Before that you don’t have the symptoms of strep throat and don’t know if you are infected. It is during this time period that strep throat is particularly contagious.

So, once the symptoms of strep throat start appearing, you have to limit your contact with friends and family in order to avoid the spread of infection.

Similarly, if you are not taking antibiotics for strep throat, you will be contagious for 2 to 3 weeks. However, if you start taking antibiotics for the infection, the contagion factor of the strep throat starts to reduce. And, you no longer remain contagious 24 hours after taking the first dose of antibiotics.

The Symptoms Of Strep Throat In Children

According to Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), strep throat is a most common reason for sore throat in children, but it is less common in adults. Although people of all ages are susceptible to strep throat, children between the ages of 5 to 15 years are most affected. That is why crowded places like schools are the one of the major places from where strep throat spreads.

Strep throat is so common in children that 6 out of 20 children suffering from a sore throat have strep throat. In adults the ratio is just 1 to 3 persons per 20 persons.

The symptoms of strep throat in children include:

    • Sore throat
    • Yellow patches in the throat
    • Chills and fever
    • Abdominal pain
    • Vomiting
    • Headaches
    • Stiffness
    • Loss of appetite
    • Difficulty in swallowing
    • Nasal congestion
    • “Strawberry tongue” – which is characterized by red and inflamed taste buds

The Symptoms Of Strep Throat In Adults

Some of the symptoms of strep throat in adults are similar to those in children. They include,

  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Muscle pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • And sometimes a skin rash

How Do Bacteria Spread From Person To Person?

The reason strep throat is contagious is because GAS bacteria live in your throat and nose making it easy for them to spread to other uninfected people around you. The bacteria travel through small droplets of water, which are released out when you sneeze or cough. As the droplets are sneezed out, they carry the infectious bacteria and land on any surface they find. If you touch any surface which has the bacterial droplets on them and then touch your nose or mouth with your contaminated hands, the infection then starts spreading in you.

Similarly, if you share a glass or plate with the infected person or shake their hand following casual contacts.

As mentioned earlier, the bacteria GAS is responsible for causing strep throat, but the Streptococcus class of bacteria also causes impetigo, an infection which causes red sores all over the body, rheumatic fever in addition to some more. The bacteria start growing in the throat or skin which leads to pus formation and non-inflammatory continuation of previous infection. Impetigo is contagious while rheumatic fever is not contagious however, strep throat can come before it, which certainly is contagious.

At some times, if you touch skin sores caused by GAS, like impetigo, you can become infected easily. It is again recommended that you wash your hands.

Sometimes you can become infected from food that contains the GAS bacteria. Although it does not happen often, strep throat is foodborne as well. In the past, outbreaks of strep throat used to happen quite commonly due to contamination and consumption of raw milk.

But now foodborne strep throat is rare so if many people complain of strep throat after eating food together in a venue, it can indicate contaminated food.

When it comes to strep throat, the bacteria starts infecting by colonizing in the throat. The bacteria adheres to the dermal epithelial cells which is due to a specific bacterial surface ligand binding with receptors in the throat. The strong adherence is one of the reasons strep throat cannot be simply washed away so easily.

In fact, salivary fluid and mucus passing down the throat cannot scrape the bacteria strongly adhered to the skin of the throat so they continue damaging the tissues in the throat.

Previous infections are also crucial as any exposure leads to weakening of the dermal barriers so when strep throat happens again, the bacteria are able to adhere to the host cells quite easily. Studies have also shown that at certain sites, the other bacteria are in competition with the infectious cells for adherence to the host cells.

The Difference Between Strep Throat, Sore Throat And Tonsillitis

It is often hard to diagnose if you have strep throat as sore throat, strep throat and tonsillitis have similar symptoms like irritation and pain in the throat.

So we differentiate these three infections for your ease

  • Strep throat is an infection of the GAS bacteria and its symptoms vary with age. Strep throat also causes inflammation of the tonsils so it is easy to mix it with tonsillitis. But strep throat is not only marked by inflammation of the tonsils, other areas of the throat are also inflamed and swollen.
  • Sore throat is mostly a viral infection and is not caused by bacteria, like strep throat. The virus Coxsackie causes sore throat in summers and autumn and lasts for 10 days at the most. In addition, there is another viral infection, called mononucleosis, which causes sore throat and can also last for 4 weeks.
  • While tonsillitis is the inflammation of the tonsils due to infection. Tonsils are lymph nodes at the back of the throat. Tonsils too is a viral infection caused by influenza virus and the common cold virus.

Strep throat is often confused with bronchitis, sore throat and pneumonia due to its proximity with the symptoms.

Strep Throat Vs Sore Throat

How Can I Prevent Strep Throat Infection?

Strep throat is not lethal and can be treated easily by antibiotics. All you have to do is get confirmation and prescription of the antibiotics from your doctor. The antibiotics prescribed are usually for ten days.

The antibiotics include

  • Amoxicillin or penicillin as the first- line of antibiotic therapy for strep throat.
  • If someone is allergic to penicillin, then azithromycin, cephalexin or erythromycin can be taken

How to Prevent and Treat Strep Throat


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