What Are the Symptoms of Strep Throat in Kids? And How to Treat Them

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Your child has started to complain that their throat hurts. They tell you that it hurts anytime they swallow. They’ve even started to refuse their favorite foods! They don’t have any other obvious symptoms so far, but they seem tired and “off.” Could it be strep throat?

Or, maybe your child was recently diagnosed with strep throat. Besides the antibiotics that were prescribed, you aren’t sure how else to soothe your child’s symptoms. You want to know if strep throat is contagious, and if so, how you can keep the rest of your family healthy.

Strep throat is a bacterial infection that most parents deal with at one time or other when their kids are young. Although it’s not fun to manage and symptoms can make kids miserable, strep throat can be quickly diagnosed by a doctor. What’s more, the treatment for strep throat is highly effective, and there are simple ways to soothe your child’s throat as you wait for the symptoms to clear.

What Is Strep Throat?

Strep throat is an infection of the throat and tonsil area. Although strep throat shares some symptoms with common cold viruses, strep throat is not a viral infection. Strep throat is a bacterial infection caused by group A Streptococcus (group A strep).

Strep throat is a very common childhood ailment. Vania Nguyen, MD, PhD, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., says that it most commonly affects school-aged children. Still, Dr. Nguyen notes that you shouldn’t assume all sore throats are strep throat.

“Only three out 10 children with a sore throat will actually have strep throat," Dr. Nguyen notes. "Most sore throats are caused by a virus."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), strep throat is most prevalent among children ages 5 to 15 and is rare among children under the age of 3. Although adults don’t usually get strep throat—only 10 percent of sore throats in adults end up being strep throat—being in close contact with a child who has strep throat increases your risk of getting it.

What Causes Strep Throat?

The tell-tale symptoms of strep throat—a painful sore throat, swollen glands, and fever—are caused by an infection by Streptococcus pyogenes, also known as group A strep or as group A Streptococcus.

You can become infected by this bacteria by having close contact with someone else who is infected. Infection can also happen if you touch a surface with respiratory droplets on it from an infected person and then touch your nose or mouth. Sharing food or utensils with an infected person can also cause you to become infected.

Most Common Symptoms in Children

Richard Seidman, MD, MPH, pediatrician and chief medical officer at L.A. Care Health Plan, says that the first signs of strep throat in children can come on very quickly. “The first signs are a red throat, swollen tonsils, white patches or streaks of white on the back of the throat, and tiny red spots in the mouth,” he says.

Additionally, children who have strep throat usually have a fever and pain that gets worse while swallowing. Sometimes, fever and complaints of a sore throat are the first things parents notice. says Dr. Nguyen. You also may notice that your child is more irritable and cranky and that they aren’t eating well.

Dr. Seidman adds that strep throat does not cause coughing or a runny nose. If your child is exhibiting those symptoms, it’s unlikely that they have strep throat. According to the CDC, these symptoms usually indicate a viral infection rather than strep throat. Other symptoms pointing to a viral infection (and not strep throat) include a hoarse voice or conjunctivitis (pink eye).

Less Common Symptoms

Your child with strep throat may have some other systemic symptoms, too. These symptoms may include headaches, tummy aches, nausea, and vomiting. Because your child’s throat hurts, they may cry while eating and swallowing.

Another symptom of strep throat is scarlet fever, which is a rash characterized by tiny red dots, similar in appearance to sandpaper. This rash doesn’t appear right away but may come about 12 to 48 hours after the first symptoms of strep throat.

Is Strep Throat Contagious?

Some parents are unsure if strep throat is contagious because it’s caused by a bacterial infection, rather than a virus. Unfortunately, strep throat most definitely is contagious and often spreads easily in congregate settings such as daycares and schools. It can also spread easily within a family unit.

How to Limit the Spread

Strep throat is spread through respiratory droplets from an infected person. The most common way strep throat is spread is through direct contact with an infected person. But it can also spread if you touch a surface that an infected person has touched, and then touch your mouth or nose. Spread is also possible by sharing food and utensils with an infected person. Pets and toys are not thought to spread strep throat.

Limiting your exposure to the infectious droplets is the best way to decrease the likelihood that you or someone in your family will become infected with strep throat.

Handwashing is one of the best ways to limit spreading all kinds of germs, including strep,” says Dr. Seidman. “Other ways include teaching children to cover their mouths with an elbow or sleeve when they cough or sneeze and to not share food, drink, or eating utensils.”

Your healthcare provider will likely prescribe antibiotics to treat strep throat. Taking these antibiotics will also limit your ability to spread strep throat to others. Usually, an infected person becomes less likely to spread strep throat within 12 hours of taking an antibiotic.

How Strep Throat Is Diagnosed

Strep throat can’t be diagnosed by symptoms alone, since many symptoms resemble symptoms of other infections, like cold viruses. If you bring your child to their pediatrician with symptoms of strep throat, they will do a test to find out whether your child has strep throat.

Usually, your healthcare provider will do a rapid antigen test to determine if your child has strep throat. This involves taking a sample from the back of your child’s throat using a swab. Sometimes this test can be uncomfortable for children and make them gag, but it’s over quickly. Results from a rapid test are usually available within 30 minutes.

Treatments for Strep Throat

If your child is diagnosed with strep throat, they will need to take antibiotics to treat their infection. Penicillin or amoxicillin are most frequently prescribed for strep throat, but if your child has a penicillin allergy, other antibiotics can successfully treat strep throat.

Antibiotics work quickly and usually reduce symptoms within 24 to 48 hours. Not only do antibiotics reduce your child’s symptoms and help them recover, but they decrease the chances of them transmitting strep to others. They also decrease your child’s chances of rheumatic fever, a serious complication of strep throat.

If you have given your child antibiotics, but their symptoms haven’t subsided after two days, you should contact their primary care provider.

Ways to Soothe a Sore Throat

The best way to treat strep throat is to start a course of antibiotics. But before you’ve gotten your prescription and before the antibiotics take full effect, your child may be very uncomfortable and may be experiencing pain. Thankfully, there are some tried-and-true ways to treat your child’s aching throat.

You can use over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, says Dr. Nguyen. Talk to your child's healthcare provider about proper dosage and instructions. But never give a child under the age of 18 aspirin (or products containing aspirin), Dr. Nguyen says.

Dr. Nguyen also suggests offering children foods that are easier to swallow while their throat is bothering them. This may include foods like soup, yogurt, apple sauce, smoothies, and popsicles. Allowing a child over the age of 6 to gargle salt water can help with a sore throat as well.

Make sure your child gets extra rest as they fight off the infection, Dr. Seidman suggests. He also recommends using a humidifier in the room to keep the air your child breathes moist. A teaspoon of honey can be used to coat your child’s throat and soothe it, says Dr. Seidman. However, he reminds parents to never give honey to children under 12 months old.

A Word From Verywell

Dealing with a bout of strep throat can be very stressful, and no parent wants to see their child suffer. But strep throat is just one of those illnesses that most children will encounter at some point. The good news is that antibiotic treatment is very effective at eliminating symptoms, and works within a few days.

It’s important to understand that you can’t diagnose strep throat alone and that your child's healthcare provider won’t be able to officially diagnose it without a test. You should visit their doctor if your child is exhibiting any symptoms of strep throat. The sooner you get a proper diagnosis and treatment, the sooner your child will feel better.

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7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. Healthy Children. Using Over-the-Counter Medicines With Your Child.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Foods and Drinks to Avoid or Limit.

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