You asked, we answered: Do I need antibiotics to treat strep throat?

Young adult holding their throat

Do I need antibiotics to treat strep throat?

Answered by Heather Eberspacher, MD:

It depends on if you actually have strep throat. It’s common for people to confuse strep throat with other sore throat infections.

Viral infections cause about 80% of sore throats, but strep throat is caused by bacteria called group A streptococcus or group A strep. Strep throat only accounts for about 15% of all sore throats in adults. A viral sore throat is usually accompanied by a cough, sneeze, runny nose or hoarse voice. Bacterial strep can make swallowing painful and often comes with a high fever.

Common signs and symptoms of strep throat include:

  • Throat pain or painful swallowing
  • Red and swollen tonsils, sometimes with white patches or pus
  • Tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth
  • Swollen, tender lymph nodes in your neck
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Rash
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Body aches

The only way to know  if your illness is strep throat or something else is to get tested at a doctor’s office with a quick throat swab.

  • Negative results: Your doctor may recommend pain medication and general fluids to manage your symptoms
  • Positive results: Your doctor will likely recommend antibiotics to ensure the infection doesn’t turn into something more serious

Left untreated, strep throat can cause:

  • Kidney damage – caused by the immune system’s response to fight off strep throat
  • Scarlet fever – symptoms include a bright red rash, sore throat and high fever
  • Rheumatic fever – a condition that causes painful joints, rash and heart problems
  • Pneumonia – symptoms vary from mild fever and cough to difficulty breathing and sepsis

While there is no vaccine to prevent strep throat, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and others:

  • Frequently wash your hands
  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze
  • Avoid sharing utensils and drinking glasses
  • Avoid kissing anyone while you are contagious

If you have a sore throat that persists for several days or does not get better with over-the-counter medicine, it’s a good idea to see a medical professional in person or through a telehealth visit. Call 402.472.5000 to schedule a visit to the University Health Center.