Strep throat is common in kids but strep throat in adults does occur — and it can be serious. Learn about symptoms, testing, and how to protect yourself.
If your throat feels scratchy and raw, your condition could be caused by a host of things, including a cold, an allergic reaction, or irritation from chemicals, scents, or cigarette smoke in your environment. But in some cases, a sore throat is the result of infection in the throat and tonsils by with group A Streptococcus bacteria — often called simply group A strep infection by doctors and referred to as “strep throat” by the rest of us.
Children between the ages of three and 15 are far more likely to have strep throat than grown-ups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, strep throat in adults does occur.
And, if untreated or under-treated, it can cause rare but potentially serious complications in people of all ages.
Important to know: Symptoms of strep throat in adults
Especially in fall and winter when viral infections with colds and flu are common, you are more likely to experience a cough, runny nose, red eyes (conjunctivitis), and a hoarse, raspy voice. These are typically symptoms of a virus, the CDC points out.
Like colds and flu, strep, a bacterial infection, is more common in autumn and winter. The disease is spread through contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. For example, if you touch your nose, eyes, or mouth after touching something that contains strep germs, you may develop a strep infection.
Strep throat in adults, as well as children, causes many or all of these symptoms:
- Sore throat, usually severe, that starts quickly and can cause pain when swallowing
- Fever (usually high)
- Swollen lymph nodes felt in the front of your neck
- Petechiae (small, red spots on the roof of your mouth)
- Red and swollen tonsils, sometimes with white streaks or patches of pus
If you have strep throat symptoms, call your doctor
If anyone in your home — whether a child or an adult — has symptoms of strep throat, it’s important to contact your doctor ASAP. Adults with strep throat symptoms, as well as kids, should be tested for the infection, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP)
A strep test involves a simple swabbing of the back of your throat to test for strep bacteria. Standard test results are available in two days and, if your doctor performs the newer rapid strep test, the test results will be back the same day.
Although strep throat often gets better in about three to five days with rest and good nutrition, antibiotics can help you feel better sooner, often in just a day. In fact, the AAFP notes most children can go back to school and adults can go back to work 24 hours after starting antibiotics.
Antibiotics keep the strep infection from spreading to other people. Treating strep throat in adults and children can also help prevent rare — but potentially very serious — complications.
Complications of strep throat in adults can be serious
Post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis (PSGN) is a potentially serious kidney disease that can develop after a strep throat or strep skin infection. Although it’s more common in youngsters, strep throat in adults can lead to more long-term health problems if they develop this form kidney disease due to a strep complication, the CDC points out.
PSGN is fairly rare but can develop about 10 days after a strep throat infection (and about three weeks after a strep skin infection). The kidney damage is a result of the body’s immune system reacting to the strep bacteria.
Symptoms include swelling around the eyes, face, feet, and hands; dark, reddish-brown urine; extreme fatigue; high blood pressure; and protein in the urine (found on laboratory testing).
Scarlet fever (scarlatina) is another potential complication of strep throat in adults. In addition to other symptoms of strep throat, scarlet fever is marked by a fever of 101°F or higher, bright red skin in the creases of the elbow, groin and underarms and a red rash that feels like sandpaper. Headaches, body aches nausea and abdominal pain are common, too.
Children are far more likely to have scarlet fever, which is usually a mild disease, but adults can develop it, too. As the rash starts to fade, skin can peel away from finger tips, toes, and the groin area and may continue to peel for weeks.
Rheumatic fever can develop in anyone after having strep throat (although children are more often affected), according to the CDC. If you’ve had rheumatic fever in the past, you are more likely to have rheumatic fever again if you get strep throat or scarlet fever. Because rheumatic fever can cause permanent and serious heart damage, it’s crucial to report any symptoms to your doctor.
Signs you may have rheumatic fever include ongoing fever, symptoms indicating congestive heart failure (chest pain, fast heartbeat and shortness of breath), fatigue, and jerky body movements (chorea). Two other symptoms, although rare, may occur — nodules under the skin near joints and a rash that looks like pink rings with clear centers.
Bottom line: Don’t ignore strep throat symptoms.
Talk to your doctor if you have any symptoms and, if they don’t go away quickly with treatment — or if you develop additional symptoms indicating complications — don’t hesitate to seek additional medical testing and care.
March 26, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN