Symptoms of Strep Throat in Kids
Sore throats are a common symptom of many illnesses and disorders, including colds and sinus infections. One of the most common causes is strep throat. In fact, about 15 percent of all cases of sore throat are a result of strep throat. Furthermore, strep throat is most common in kids age 5 to 15.
In the United States, kids will suffer a Streptococcus infection once every 4 years on average. These infections are most prevalent when kids are at daycare or in school during early spring, late fall, and winter.
While strep throat is by no means serious or fatal, it can be highly uncomfortable and difficult for kids and their parents to deal with. Let’s take a closer look at strep throat and its causes and symptoms in kids.
What is Strep Throat?
Strep throat, which is alternately known as Streptococcal pharyngitis, refers to an infection of the throat and tonsils by a Streptococcus bacteria. There are two main types of Streptococcus bacteria.
Group A Streptococcus is the most common and is usually responsible for strep throat, along with certain skin infections, toxic shock syndrome, and scarlet fever. Group B Streptococcus is rare and more associated with meningitis, bacterial pneumonia, and blood infections.
How Does Strep Throat Spread?
Strep throat is highly contagious, which is partly why it is so common in kids and teens during the school year. Large groups of kids allow for easy spread of the bacteria from student to student. Group A Streptococcus bacteria most commonly settles on the mucus membranes in your nose and throat.
Bacteria in the nose or throat is spread easily through water droplets when one child sneezes or coughs and another child breathes the bacteria in. The bacteria can also spread through handshakes or via objects that have come into contact with the bacteria, like doorknobs, phones, and keyboards.
Without treatment, you are likely to spread the bacteria when the symptoms are at their peak. Symptoms can start two to five days after initial exposure. However, even if you are feeling better, you can still infect others for up to 3 weeks after being diagnosed.
Symptoms of Strep Throat in Kids
Individual symptoms of strep throat in toddlers, kids, and adults can differ from child to child, person to person, but it is mainly characterized by a sudden sore throat that can appear red with patches of white. The sore throat can also make swallowing painful or difficult.
Along with a sore throat, other strep throat symptoms your child may experience include:
- Tonsils that appear red and enlarged
- Tender, swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- Taste buds that appear red and inflamed (strawberry tongue)
- Nasal congestion
- A fever over 101 degrees
- Pain in the lower stomach
- Skin rash
- Nausea and a loss of appetite
- Stiffness in the joints
- Aches and pains in the muscles
- General discomfort, uneasiness, fatigue, and illness
These symptoms have a rapid onset, usually within the first few days of exposure. Fever is commonly reported to be the first symptom, but some kids may have mild symptoms or show no symptoms at all.
That said, not all sore throats are strep throat. In fact, most sore throats are caused by viral infections, not bacteria. Sore throats caused by viruses can be just as painful and uncomfortable. If your child has a sore throat that is accompanied by cold symptoms, like sneezing, coughing, a runny nose, or red eyes, they are most likely suffering from a viral infection, which should generally resolve itself over time without the need for treatment.
When to See a Doctor
Figuring out if your kids have strep throat is difficult without a professional evaluation. Generally, if your child has a sore throat and a fever, you should seek medical attention immediately. The sore throat may point to other, more serious conditions. Your child should see the doctor immediately if they:
- Have difficulty breathing
- Experience severe throat pain
- Are unable to swallow saliva, food, or drink
- Are unable to open their mouth
- Have difficulty breathing
- Begin to bleed from their throat or cough up blood
- Have a red, swollen neck
- Make audible noises when they breathe
- Have dark, red spots on their tonsils or the roof of their mouth
Furthermore, if your child has received treatment from a doctor but does not show improvements within the first few days, you should consider seeing the doctor again.
Diagnosing Strep Throat in Kids
The only way to truly know if your kid has strep throat is to get them diagnosed by a doctor as soon as they show symptoms. Any diagnosis will start with a physical exam during which your doctor will also ask about symptoms and past health.
The rapid strep test is the common means of diagnosing strep throat. The test involves using a swab to take samples of fluids at the back of the throat. The sample can then be tested to show the presence of group A Streptococcus. You can get results within 5 to 10 minutes. If the tests come out positive, your child has strep throat.
If the results are negative, your doctor may still send a sample to a lab. Rapid strep tests do not always show strep, even if it is actually present. The lab can perform a throat culture to definitively detect strep throat bacteria. It can take up to three days to get results back from a throat culture test, but it is much more effective at showing all cases of strep throat in your system.
Treating Strep Throat
Thankfully, strep throat can easily be treated with a course of antibiotics. Your doctor will likely prescribe 10 days of antibiotics for strep throat, most commonly amoxicillin or penicillin. Your kid should feel significantly better within the first 24 hours after starting antibiotic treatment. By the second or third day of treatment, most of your child’s symptoms should be gone completely.
Even if your kid feels better, make sure they take the complete course of antibiotics as prescribed by their doctor. This ensures that the bacteria is completely eliminated from the system. Stopping early may lead to a relapse, causing symptoms to return. Not taking the full course also encourages the growth of “super bacteria.” These are bacteria that may grow resistant to antibiotics, making them harder to kill and easier to spread.
Potential Complications of Strep Throat in Kids
Completing the antibiotics also prevents strep infection from progressing to more serious complications, including:
- Peritonsillar abscess – The bacteria may spread to surrounding neck tissue, creating a large, infectious swelling in the neck. This is known as a peritonsillar abscess, and aside from showing as a large mass on the side of the neck, the abscess can make swallowing difficult and even cause breathing troubles.
- Scarlet fever – Scarlet fever is an allergic reaction to the strep bacteria that causes a red rash all over the body. While this is not any more serious than strep throat, kids with scarlet fever may feel sicker and more uncomfortable.
- Rheumatic fever – In rare cases, the strep bacteria will enter the bloodstream and reach the heart. When it sticks to one of the heart valves, the bacteria infect and create a small mass, creating a wide range of problems. Common symptoms include persistent fevers, breathing issues, and chest pains.
- Glomerulonephritis – Glomerulonephritis describes inflammation in the kidneys. This can happen when your body creates antibodies to battle the strep throat infection. Those antibodies may mistakenly attack healthy kidney cells as well, causing them to stop working properly. The main sign that your child may have glomerulonephritis is blood in the urine, which may appear red or dark brown in color.
Thankfully, these conditions are rare and can be easily treated with a visit to your doctor.
Caring for Your Kids at Home
Battling strep throat can be rough and difficult for kids and adults. Much of what you do at home can help your kids get better quicker and reduce the discomfort of the infection.
- Provide plenty of liquids to prevent dehydration. Cold liquids, like water and ginger ale, can help to numb the throat, while warmer liquids, like tea, soup, and hot chocolate, can soothe the throat.
- Avoid any acidic beverages, including orange juice, lemonade, and grapefruit juice, which may only irritate the throat.
- Use a cool-mist humidifier to help ease breathing and congestion.
- Throat lozenges can help to reduce discomfort. Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and other over-the-counter medication can help to relieve aches and pains.
- Gargle a mixture of a half teaspoon of salt in one cup of water to reduce the pain and potentially remove bacteria and mucus.
Preventing Strep Throat in Your Kids
The best way to treat strep throat in adults (including pregnant women and children is to make sure you never catch it in the first place. Unfortunately, this may be easier said than done, especially when your kids are at school for most of the day. If possible, take your child out of school until they have received treatment.
Teach your child to cover their sneezes and coughs with tissues or their sleeves instead of their hands to reduce the spread of the bacteria through water droplets and contact. Make sure that your child does not share food, drinks, utensils, or other objects with friends or family members.
Good hygiene is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of strep throat. Make sure your kids wash their hands frequently when they have an infection or when there is a known outbreak of strep throat at school.
Once the infection has completely passed, make sure to change out your child’s toothbrush. Bacteria still present on the bristles of the toothbrush may re-infect your child after the antibiotics have run their course.
If you think that your kids may be suffering from strep throat, consult your healthcare professional or an urgent care center immediately.