How Long Is Strep Throat Contagious?

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Strep throat is contagious for 2 to 5 days before you even start to experience symptoms. During this time, you may unknowingly share your germs with someone else. The duration of being contagious is dependent upon when you start taking antibiotics. Strep throat, also known as Group A Streptococcus (GAS) is caused by the bacteria streptococcus pyogenes. Despite already having been contagious, once you start to have symptoms (such as a sore throat) and suspect you may have strep throat, you should start taking precautions not to infect those around you.

Do I Have Strep Throat?

If your sore throat is accompanied with a runny nose, pink eye, hoarseness, or diarrhea, you likely do not have strep throat and your doctor will not test you for strep throat. In this case you likely have a viral infection and will not need antibiotics. However you will need to be tested for strep throat if you do not have signs of viral infection and have the following symptoms:

  • sore throat
  • fever
  • enlarged lymph nodes
  • abdominal pain
  • small red or purple spots on the roof of your mouth
  • redness around your tonsils
  • white patches on your tonsils

Do I Need Antibiotics?

Strep throat is most common in children between 5 to 15 years old, and only makes up 5-10% of sore throat cases in adults. This is why your doctor will not just start giving you antibiotics right away. It is important to help prevent development of "super bugs", or antibiotic resistant bacteria, that your doctor is sure you need antibiotics.

To test for strep throat, your doctor will need to perform a strep test.

If your strep test is negative and your doctor suspects a viral infection, you will not need antibiotics. However if you test positive for strep throat, you will be prescribed Penicillin V, Amoxicillin or another antibiotic that is known to be effective.

How Long Will I Be Contagious?

If you are diagnosed with strep, you will stop being contagious approximately 24 hours after starting an antibiotic. Antibiotics should help alleviate your symptoms within one or two days, although in some people the symptoms may last up to a week. Without treatment, strep throat generally resolves on its own in about a week. If you don't have any reduction in fever or other symptoms within 48 hours of starting antibiotics, contact your physician.

If you are on an antibiotic and you do not have a fever the night before returning to school or work, you will not be contagious. If you continue to have a fever the night before, you will not want to return to school or work, as you will likely spread strep to others around you.

Other Ways to Prevent Spreading of Strep Throat?

You may not always be able to avoid others while having strep throat. You can count on being contagious if you still have a fever or have not been on antibiotics for more than 24 hours. If you think you are contagious and will be around others, you can try these tips to reduce your risk of getting them sick as well.

  • Strict and frequent hand washing (wash for about the length of the alphabet song) with soap/water or use a hand sanitizer and let air dry.
  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. You can use a Kleenex, napkin, or sleeve. Do not cover your mouth with your hands. If you do cover your mouth with your hands, wash them immediately.
  • Do not share eating utensils or drinking glasses with anyone.

Avoiding people all together is best, however following the above tips can drastically reduce the risk of sharing strep throat with others. Strep throat is passed through droplets that are sneezed, coughed or shared in other ways. Touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your mouth, kissing, or sharing silverware or drinking glasses will increase the risk of spreading strep throat to someone else.

Children in the same household have a 50 percent chance of sharing strep throat with their siblings.

Potential Complications of Not Treating Strep Throat

Treatment with antibiotics should begin within 9 days of the onset of your symptoms. If you do not treat your strep throat with antibiotics, or you do not take all the pills as prescribed by your doctor, you will increase your risk for developing complications like recurrent strep or rheumatic heart disease.  If you do not complete your full course of antibiotics, you also increase the risk of creating resistant strains of bacteria, known as superbugs, that are more difficult to treat; this is a public health concern.

Sources:

American Academy of Family Physicians. (2014). Patient Education: Strep Throat. Accessed on 2/17/2016 from http://www.clinicalkey.com (Subscription Required)

Medline Plus. Strep Throat. Accessed: April 9, 2011 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000639.htm

Schwartz, R.H. (2016). Is it okay to return to school the day after 1 strep throat treatment? Contemp Pediatr. 33 (2): 11-12. (2p)

The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library. Streptococcal Infections. Accessed: April 9, 2011 from http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/sec17/ch190/ch190u.html#sec17-ch190-ch190s-310

Wald, ER. (2016). Group A streptococcal tonsillopharyngitis in children and adolescents: Clinical features and diagnosis. Accessed on February 2, 2017 from http://www.uptodate.com (Subscription Required)

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