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People often think that any painful sore throat is strep throat and that antibiotics are needed to make it better. This is not true.

Strep throat is an infection of the throat and tonsils caused by streptococcal bacteria. The throat gets irritated and inflamed, causing a sudden, severe sore throat.

Most other sore throats are caused by a virus. Sore throats caused by a virus are also painful. If you have cold-like symptoms such as a runny or stuffy nose and coughing, you probably do not have strep throat.

The most common symptoms of strep throat are:

* Sudden, severe sore throat

* Pain when swallowing

* Fever over 101 degrees F (38.3 degrees Celsius)

* Swollen tonsils and lymph nodes

* White or yellow spots on the back of a bright red throat

People spread the bacteria by sneezing, coughing, shaking hands or close contact with people who are infected.

You also can pick up strep by touching objects that were touched by an infected person (such as phones, doorknobs, tables) and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

To prevent infection:

* Avoid close contact with an infected individual.

* Do not share toothbrushes or eating and drinking utensils.

* Wash your hands frequently.

* Strengthen your body's ability to fight off infections with a healthy diet, regular exercise, a good night's sleep and stress management.

* Wipe down your phone.

Strep throat cannot be accurately diagnosed by symptoms or by a physical exam alone. Diagnosis is made by swabbing the back of the throat for a culture to identify the presence of strep bacteria.

Sore throats should be treated with antibiotics only if the strep test is positive. Penicillin or amoxicillin is usually the antibiotic prescribed to treat strep throat infection. Antibiotics should be taken for the entire 10 days, even though symptoms are usually gone after a few days.

If antibiotics are not taken for the full course of treatment, the infection may reoccur and stronger antibiotics may be needed to treat the infection.

Remember, strep throat is not your average sore throat. If you suspect that you may have strep throat, see your health care provider.

Editor's note: Lt. Col. Patricia McKinney is an Army Public Health nurse.

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