Strep throat is a common bacterial infection that causes a severe sore throat.
It gets its name because the disease is caused by a bacteria called Streptococcus pyogenes, also called group A streptococcus.
Cases of strep throat come on suddenly, and can be really unpleasant—so it’s natural to wonder how long it will last.
There’s not one single answer: Every person’s recovery depends on many factors, including age, other health conditions, and how quickly you get treated.
In this article, I’ll answer your questions about how long strep throat lasts, and how its symptoms and causes differ from other sore throats. I’ll also explain how strep throat is treated, and when you should talk to your doctor.
How Long Does Strep Throat Last?
Strep throat typically comes on suddenly.
If you notice a severe sore throat and a fever, call your doctor or provider as quickly as possible.
Antibiotics work best if started within 48 hours, though should never be started before you have a formal diagnosis of strep.
Strep does go away on its own within about 7-10 days, and symptoms typically are worse within the first 2-3 days and then begin to improve.
Is strep throat contagious?
Yes. Strep throat is medically known as streptococcal pharyngitis, and is highly contagious.
It is spread by sharing food or utensils with a person who is sick with strep throat.
It may also be passed along from droplets that come from coughing, sneezing, or saliva.
Surface contamination is possible, too, if you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
How long is strep throat contagious?
If you become infected with strep, you may not become sick for 2-5 days.
This is called the incubation period.
During this time, you can be contagious with strep throat even before you show symptoms.
You are considered contagious with strep throat until you have been without a fever for at least 24 hours and are starting to feel better, or until you have been taking antibiotics for a full day.
Strep symptoms often begin to improve by about day 3-4 of illness, or 3 days after starting antibiotics.
If you find your symptoms are worsening after 3 days, or not improving at all after 7-10 days, speak with your healthcare provider.
Antibiotics for strep throat are usually prescribed for 10 days.
Most people find that by the end of 10, they feel completely better with no lingering symptoms.
Even if you feel better sooner, it’s important to take all of the medication your doctor has prescribed, unless they tell you to stop.
Stopping medication too soon can cause the infection to come back, and may make the medication ineffective against future infections.
Symptoms of Strep Throat
The most common symptoms of strep throat are:
- Severe sore throat that comes on quickly
- Fever of at least 101ºF
- Pain when swallowing
- Tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth or back of the throat
- Red, swollen tonsils with white patches or pus on them
- Body aches
- Tender, swollen lymph nodes
- Stomach ache or nausea, especially in children
Strep Throat vs. Sore Throat
There are many causes of sore throat, and most are viruses.
Strep throat tends to come on more quickly and often at the same time as a fever.
Milder sore throat, sore throat that comes on gradually, or a sore throat along with cough, hoarseness, or runny nose, are much more likely to be caused by a viral illness than by strep.
Your doctor will do a rapid strep test to determine if you may have strep throat.
Since most sore throats are caused by viruses, it is important to only take antibiotics if you have a positive strep result.
If the test is negative or not conclusive, a throat culture can be done to check for the bacteria that causes strep throat.
Strep throat is most common in children between the ages of 5 and 15, but anyone can get it.
Sore throats caused by viruses or other causes can also occur at any age.
A sudden onset of sore throat should be evaluated at any age, but especially in children.
Strep throat is very unlikely in children under 3 so the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend testing for or treating strep at that age.
Treatments for Strep Throat
Strep throat is a bacterial infection that is typically treated with antibiotics to prevent complications..
The three most common antibiotics prescribed for strep throat are:
- Penicillin: Dosages range from 250 mg twice daily to 500 mg twice daily, depending on age. The typical course of penicillin for strep throat is 10 days.
- Amoxicillin: Doses for children are based on their body weight, and may be prescribed 2-3 times per day. The standard adult dose of amoxicillin for strep throat is 500mg twice a day for 10 days, or 1,000mg extended release once a day for 10 days.
- Cephalexin: For individuals allergic to penicillin, cephalexin may be used. The dose is based on body weight for children, and may be divided 2-4 times per day. The standard adult dose is 500mg twice a day for 10 days.
While there are concerns over antibiotic resistance, the CDC notes that there has never been a report of penicillin resistance from group A strep.
You can also treat pain and discomfort from strep throat with over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and acetaminophen (Tylenol).
Gargles, warm tea, and throat lozenges may also ease sore throat pain.
When to See a Doctor
If you develop a sudden sore throat and are concerned for strep, you should speak with a healthcare provider.
While strep throat can go away on its own in many cases, antibiotic treatment can help symptoms go away about one day more quickly, and may slightly decrease sore throat pain after about 3 days of use.
Antibiotics may also help prevent more serious complications from developing.
If you have a sore throat and develop difficulty swallowing, speaking, or breathing, you should seek emergency medical care.
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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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Pharyngitis (strep throat). (2018).
Strep throat: all you need to know. (2021).
Strep throat. (2021).