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Can You Get Over Strep Throat Without Antibiotics?

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A sore throat is most commonly caused by viruses. However, strep throat, which is a bacterial infection, can also make your throat feel sore and scratchy. Knowing what is the cause of your sore throat is important because a bacterial infection will respond to antibiotics while a viral infection will not. So, how do you tell if you have strep throat or a sore throat from something else? And are antibiotics always needed to treat a strep throat? Please continue reading to find out.

How to tell if I have a bacterial infection or something else?

Causes of Sore Throat

Both viruses and bacteria can cause a sore throat. Strep throat is a bacterial infection that is caused by a family of bacteria called group A Streptococcus (strep). It is more common in children, but people of all ages can get strep throat. However, strep throat is responsible for only a small number of sore throats. Viruses are the more common cause of sore throats. 

Symptoms of Sore Throat

Symptoms of strep throat can include throat pain, pain with swallowing, fever, headache, body aches, red and swollen tonsils, purulent discharge (pus), swollen lymph nodes in the neck, nausea, vomiting, and skin rash. These symptoms may not be specific and could be from strep throat, a viral illness, or something else. Also, some people can carry strep bacteria but have no symptoms. Such individuals can spread strep throat to others. 

Tests for Strep Throat

To find out for sure whether your sore throat is a strep infection, your doctor can do a quick test called a rapid strep test. Sometimes, doctors order a more specific test called a throat culture. If the test is positive for strep bacteria, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to help you feel better. Taking antibiotics will also reduce your risk of spreading the infection to others. On the other hand, if your sore throat and other cold symptoms are caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help.

Are antibiotics necessary for strep throat?

If your sore throat is from strep throat, taking antibiotics can help because this is a bacterial infection. However, you don’t always have to take antibiotics for strep throat. Doctors say antibiotics should be reserved for a severe sore throat caused by bacteria.

The reason is that exposure to too many antibiotics can lead to something called antibiotic resistance. This refers to a situation where bacteria and other microorganisms develop the ability to defeat the antibiotics that were developed to kill them. These germs are called superbugs and they cannot be killed by commonly available drugs. 

When does a doctor recommend taking antibiotics for a sore throat?

If you have a bad sore throat and your doctor has made a strep throat diagnosis, they may prescribe antibiotics such as penicillin or amoxicillin to help you get well fast. Taking antibiotics can decrease the duration and severity of your symptoms. It can also prevent the bacterial infection from spreading. Antibiotics are also prescribed to prevent serious but rare problems like rheumatic fever.

What are the risks of taking antibiotics for a sore throat?

Every time you take antibiotics, some bacteria escape the drug. Over time, these bacteria become stronger and cause more serious infections. To treat them, you may need different antibiotics that are stronger and more expensive. That’s why it is important that you only take antibiotics when you need them. Failure to do so could mean that antibiotics will not work when you need them in the future. 

Indeed, antibiotic resistance is a growing global threat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there are more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections in the U.S. each year, and over 35,000 people die as a result. 

Other reasons to avoid unnecessary antibiotic use are that these medications can cause many side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and skin rashes. Also, you need a doctor's visit to get a prescription, and antibiotics cost money.

FAQs Sore Throats

Can strep throat go away on its own without antibiotics?

Yes, home treatments can effectively soothe a sore throat. You can try gargling with warm salt water to reduce throat swelling and pain. Drinking warm liquids like weak tea can also help, as can throat lozenges and cough drops. A decongestant nasal spray may help with symptoms like a runny nose and postnasal drip. Taking over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can reduce fever and pain. Please read package instructions on any over-the-counter medicine carefully because some of these medicines cannot be given to children younger than a certain age.

How long does it take for strep throat to go away untreated?

Health professionals say that strep throat typically goes away in just a few days whether you take antibiotic treatment or not. It is unusual for symptoms to last more than a week. However, people who don’t take antibiotics can remain contagious for up to 3 weeks. Also, if you don’t use antibiotics to treat strep, there may be a risk of serious complications.

What happens if strep throat is untreated?

Untreated strep throat can cause complications such as rheumatic fever and inflammation in the kidneys. Rheumatic fever is associated with a specific type of skin rash and painful and inflamed joints, and it can lead to heart valve damage.

The Takeaway

Remember that most sore throats are caused by viruses and antibiotics will not work for these infections. You should only take an antibiotic to cure a sore throat if you know it is strep throat caused by bacteria. This can be confirmed by a rapid strep test or throat culture. 

Sore throats typically go away on their own in 3-7 days. You can take over-the-counter medicines, drink extra fluids, and get plenty of rest to relieve the pain and feel better faster. 

If your doctor prescribes antibiotics to treat your strep throat, be sure to take the entire course as directed. However, don’t expect an antibiotic prescription every time you go to your doctor with a sore throat. Antibiotics may not be necessary for clinically mild infections such as strep throat, otitis (ear infections), and urinary tract infections. Experts recommend reserving antibiotics to treat severe infections that are potentially life-threatening.
 

References:

  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/strep-throat/symptoms-causes/syc-20350338
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/groupastrep/diseases-public/strep-throat.html
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/about.html