Understanding Strep Throat: Causes and Contagion

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You wake up with a scratchy throat, and by lunchtime, swallowing feels like navigating a thorny maze. This discomfort is a familiar scenario for many of us, signaling the possibility of strep throat. But what exactly is “strep,” how do you determine if you really have it, and how does it find its way into our lives? 

Strep throat, which is scientifically known as Streptococcal Pharyngitis, is primarily caused by the Streptococcus bacterium, explains White-Wilson Nurse Practitioner (APRN) Mary Jean Middleton. Among these bacteria, Group A Streptococcus (GAS) takes the spotlight as the culprit behind the majority of strep throat cases. 

While we can’t see them with the naked eye, these bacteria are responsible for the unpleasant symptoms of strep, from a sore throat to fever and difficulty swallowing. Other telltale signs of strep are red or swollen tonsils, white patches of pus at the back of the throat and small, red spots on the roof of the mouth. 

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Although APRN Middleton clarifies that the infection is more common in children than adults, it is still an illness known for a high level of contagion that everyone should be cautious of.  

“It doesn’t need an elaborate plan to spread; it thrives on close human contact,” says APRN Middleton. “When an infected person coughs or sneezes, they release tiny respiratory droplets that may contain the strep bacteria, and if you happen to be in the vicinity, you could inhale these infectious droplets, leading to a potential infection.” 

APRN Middleton warns that the bacteria can also linger on surfaces such as doorknobs, keyboards and other objects, so it is important to be extra cautious if you are infected or are around someone who is. Understanding the modes of transmission is key to preventing strep throat, and practicing simple hygiene can go a long way in safeguarding yourself and those around you. 

Below are some simple steps APRN Middleton suggests patients keep in mind:

  • Handwashing – Regular handwashing with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds can effectively remove bacteria from your skin. Be especially diligent after coughing, sneezing or touching surfaces in public places.
  • Disinfection – Clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces in your home and workplace regularly. This can help eliminate any lurking bacteria. 
  • Respiratory Etiquette – Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or your elbow when you cough or sneeze. Dispose of used tissues properly to prevent the spread of germs. 
  • Avoid Close Contact – If you know someone has strep throat, try to maintain some distance form them until they’ve completed a course of antibiotics. This can significantly reduce the risk of transmission. 

Should you suspect you have strep throat, APRN Middleton emphasizes it is essential to consult a health care professional for proper diagnosis and treatment. Once diagnosed, strep throat is typically treated with antibiotics, which can effectively clear the infection and reduce the risk of complications, and taking the full course of antibiotics as prescribed is crucial to irradicate the bacteria.

“If you or someone you know experiences symptoms of strep throat, don’t hesitate to seek medical attention,” says APRN Middleton. “Our Immediate Care team treats strep throat frequently, and we have recently upgraded our equipment to allow us to more quickly process cultures and determine what exactly is causing you discomfort. With a timely diagnosis and appropriate treatment, you can recover quickly and minimize the risk of spreading the infection to others.” 

Mary Jane Middleton, APRN is a registered nurse practitioner with White-Wilson Medical Center’s Immediate Care team. She is passionate about listening and allowing the patient to fully express what brings them in before drawing conclusions. Learn more about APRN Middleton and her approach to patient care here