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Strep throat in seniors

Many older adults have a weakened immune system, which is a consequence of the natural aging process. Not only does this increase the likelihood that a senior will get sick, but it also makes it more difficult for him or her to recover. One of the most common illnesses that affects the elderly is strep throat, especially during the late fall and winter months.

Is your elderly loved one suffering from strep throat?

A sore throat can be caused by a virus, irritation, or bacteria. Viral sore throats—the most common type—are usually accompanied by other cold symptoms, such as a runny nose, coughing, sneezing, and watery eyes. Throat irritation can result from allergies, dry air, smoking, or pollution.

Less common but more serious than the scratchy throat that typically accompanies the common cold or results from general irritation, strep throat is a highly contagious infection caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria.

How strep throat spreads

When an infected person sneezes, coughs, or speaks, droplets of his or her saliva can enter the air, bringing the strep bacteria with them. Other people can easily become infected if they breathe in the airborne bacteria or touch a surface that these droplets have landed on, such as a doorknob or countertop, and then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth. The infection can also be spread by sharing personal items, such as a toothbrush, eating utensils, food, drinks, and cosmetics, with an infected person.

Symptoms to watch for

In most cases, strep throat symptoms appear within two to five days after contact with an infected person or a contaminated surface. In addition to severe throat pain that comes on very suddenly, strep throat symptoms may include:

  • Painful swallowing
  • Swollen tonsils, which may appear red with white patches or streaks of pus
  • Tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth (soft or hard palate)
  • Swollen, tender lymph nodes at the front of the neck
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • A skin rash
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Body aches

Many of these symptoms can have causes other than a strep infection, such as a virus or general irritation, which require a very different treatment approach. Therefore, it’s important to identify the root cause of the symptoms by having a qualified medical professional test specifically for strep throat.

If strep is present, antibiotic treatment can help prevent the infection from spreading. Although antibiotics can be very effective for treating strep throat, it is important to understand that they are not appropriate for treating viral infections or general throat irritation. In fact, in those instances, antibiotics can actually do more harm than good.

Testing for strep throat

A medical professional cannot conclusively diagnose strep throat based solely on a symptom review and physical examination. The only way to confirm that strep is the cause of a sore throat is to perform a relatively quick and easy rapid strep (antigen) test or a throat culture.

Rapid strep

A rapid strep test involves the collection of a secretion sample from the painful area of the throat. For a few seconds, a medical professional gently rubs a sterile cotton swab across the back of the throat, tonsils, and any other sore areas. The sample is then analyzed in a lab to determine whether strep bacteria are present. The result is usually available within 10 to 15 minutes.

If the result of a rapid strep test is positive, a physician may prescribe antibiotic treatment to destroy the bacteria. If the result is negative but the physician still suspects strep throat, he or she may take a throat culture swab.

Throat culture

Similar to a rapid strep test, a throat culture involves the collection of a secretion sample from the back of the throat. The sample is placed on a special plate that will allow any bacteria to grow, which may take a few days. Chemical tests are then performed on the cultured sample, which can help a medical professional determine whether any harmful bacteria are present and, if so, the specific type.

A throat culture requires more time than a rapid strep test in order to allow any strep bacteria in secretion sample an opportunity to grow. The trade-off is that a throat culture is more reliable and can potentially identify an infection that was missed by a rapid strep test.

If the result of a rapid strep test is positive, a physician may prescribe antibiotic treatment to destroy the bacteria. If the result is negative but the physician still suspects strep throat, he or she may take a throat culture swab.

Strep throat treatment for seniors

The primary form of treatment for strep throat is a course of antibiotics. This powerful medication can destroy the strep bacteria, relieve the associated sore throat and other symptoms, keep the infection from spreading, and also help prevent complications. For treating strep throat, doctors often prescribe penicillin or amoxicillin, both of which are proven to be effective against strep, and are also safe and relatively inexpensive.

Usually, antibiotics work quickly, and most people start to feel better within a day or two. Some ways to improve comfort in the meantime include:

  • Getting plenty of rest, which can boost the body’s immune system and help it fight off the infection
  • Drinking plenty of water to keep the throat lubricated, ease swallowing, and prevent dehydration
  • Eating soothing, easy-to-swallow foods, such as broths, soups, applesauce, cooked cereal, mashed potatoes, soft fruits, yogurt, and soft-cooked eggs
  • Avoiding spicy foods and acidic beverages, such as orange juice
  • Gargling with warm salt water to relieve throat pain
  • Using a cool-mist humidifier to add moisture to the air
  • Using an over-the-counter saline nasal spray to help keep mucous membranes moist
  • Avoiding throat irritants, such as cigarette smoke and cleaning product fumes

Most antibiotic treatments for strep throat last about 10 days. It is very important to complete the entire course of treatment, even if the symptoms go away. Stopping too soon may allow some bacteria to linger, which can lead to further health problems down the road. It can also allow the bacteria that cause strep become resistant to the medication, which means another strep infection could be much harder to control.

Seniors with strep: Our mobile healthcare team is ready to help

When diagnosed and treated early, strep throat is usually not dangerous. However, an undetected strep infection can potentially lead to serious complications, such as sinus and tonsil infections, kidney problems, and rheumatic fever, which can damage the heart, brain, and joints. Therefore, if strep throat is suspected, it is important to promptly see a medical professional who can perform a rapid-result test or a throat culture, provide an accurate diagnosis, and recommend appropriate antibiotic treatment. With DispatchHealth, you can receive all of that and more—without ever leaving your home.

If you think you might have strep throat, protect your health by requesting in-home treatment from DispatchHealth via our app, telephone, or online. You can receive outstanding care from our mobile medical team at a fraction of the cost of an emergency room visit. We also accept most major insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Phil Mitchell MD, MS on October 3rd, 2019

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