Strep Throat 101: What it looks like and when to see a doctor

By Sarah Pryor December 18, 2020

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Winter is here and that means some of the usual suspects of childhood illnesses will be popping up. Strep Throat is one that most parents will encounter with their children more than once. Strep throat is a yucky bug that is a literal pain in the neck! Typical symptoms can include fever, rash, and a sore throat. Because it is such a common illness in childhood, doctors have good insight into treating and helping to prevent strep throat. 

“If you think your child has strep throat, it’s really important to get it checked out,” says Dr. Joseph Loibissio, a pediatrician with Atrium Health Levine Children’s Arboretum Pediatrics. “If left untreated, it can have severe consequences and even become life-threatening.” So how do we know if our child has strep? Read on.

Cold or strep throat?

Some strep throat symptoms mimic the signs of the common cold: a sore, scratchy throat, and possible feverThe difference, says Dr. Loibissio, is that a cold will come with other unwelcome guests like a cough and runny nose. Those symptoms aren’t typical with strep. However, neither is a sore throat. At least not always right off the bat.

Dr. Loibissio said many kids with strep throat start with a fever, headache, stomach pain, and vomiting. The sore throat may come later, possibly accompanied by another tell-tale sign of strep: a sandpaper-like rash on the torso. Dr. Loibissio said some strep sufferers describe an angry red throat, but it’s often the soft palette that’s covered with pinpoint-sized red dots. Are your child’s glands swollen in the neck? That’s another good indication it could be strep. In short, if your child has any combination of these symptoms, you’ll need to call the pediatrician to get a strep test because that’s the only way to know for sure. And don’t delay treatment — untreated strep throat can cause an autoimmune response like rheumatic fever, or even inflammation of the heart. It’s important to seek treatment if you suspect that your child may have strep throat, left untreated strep throat can lead to more serious conditions. Luckily, strep throat is relatively easy to diagnose and treat with a visit to your pediatrician. 

Treatment and prevention

If your child’s strep test is positive, your pediatrician will likely prescribe a round of oral antibiotics. But even if your child is feeling better after a day or so on the meds, don’t let him stop taking them until he’s done with the prescribed dosage. Additionally, Dr. Loibissio said patients are still considered contagious for 24 hours after starting the antibiotic. You’ll also need to replace their toothbrush after that point to prevent re-infection. If your child isn’t feeling significantly better after 72 hours on antibiotics, still has a high fever that won’t come down with Tylenol or Ibuprofen, or is showing any signs of dehydration, contact your doctor immediately.

The good news about strep throat this year is that our widespread usage of masks and attention to hygienic practices like hand washing has brought the number of cases way down, Dr. Loibissio says. A good rule of thumb is to remind your child to avoid sharing food, drinks, and utensils with others, socially distance as much as possible, and frequently wash your hands (stop us if you’ve heard that one before). 

Questions about strep throat? Contact your pediatrician.

Need a pediatrician? Find one here.

Dr. Loibissio graduated from Montclair State University in 1999 with a degree in molecular biology. He received his MD from New York Medical College in 2003 and completed his pediatric residency and the University of Rochester’s Golisano Children’s Hospital in 2006. He’s been with Atrium Health Levine Children’s Arboretum Pediatrics since 2018 and became the Medical Director in January 2020. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and two sons and enjoys piano and singing in his spare time. He and his wife also lead a discipleship community at Carmel Baptist Church.

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