About Strep Throat: Symptoms and Complications

Streptococcal pharyngitis, as strep throat is formally known, causes these symptoms:

  • sore throat
  • fever, chills and sweating
  • high pulse
  • headache
  • swollen tonsils and lymph nodes in the neck
  • sometimes nausea and vomiting

Coughing and sneezing aren't associated with strep throat, and are usually signs of viral infection. Of course, it's possible to have both viral and bacterial infections at the same time. It's also rare for streptococcus to invade the larynx (voice box), causing hoarseness - this is far more likely with the flu.

Before the discovery of antibiotics, strep throat often led to serious complications. The most dangerous of these was rheumatic fever. Fortunately, this is a very rare occurrence today. In rheumatic fever, the immune system inflicts serious damage on the vital heart valves. This can leave a person vulnerable to heart disease later in life.

Other possible complications include immune overreaction in the joints (arthritis) or in the kidneys (glomerulonephritis). The bacteria can also travel up tubes that link the throat to the middle ears (the eustachian tubes). This is especially likely in young children, whose ear tubes aren't yet fully developed. This causes otitis media, infection of the middle ear. The bacteria may also get into the lining of the brain, causing meningitis.

All of these complications are extremely rare, except otitis media. A few children develop a chronic pattern of recurring throat and ear infections.

The syndrome known as scarlet fever is a fairly rare harmless complication of strep throat. Though the name strikes terror into the hearts of many parents, scarlet fever is really nothing more than a strep throat accompanied by a temporary red rash. The rash is most prominent on the abdomen and the sides of the chest. Some skin may peel when it subsides.

If complications do appear, they often come one to six weeks after the strep throat has passed. Call a doctor if you see any of these symptoms:

  • sudden high fever
  • nose bleeds
  • joint pain
  • earache
  • stiff neck
  • severe abdominal pain

Learn more about Sore Throat