Winter is coming — and so is the painful infection known as strep throat. Here’s what you can do about it.

Strep throat is not like the common cold. Instead of being caused by a virus, it’s a bacterial infection that should be treated as soon as possible with antibiotics.

Symptoms of strep throat include fever, red and swollen tonsils, white patches or red dots in the throat, trouble swallowing, nausea and vomiting. Rare but possible complications include rheumatic fever. Kids tend to get strep most often, but adults can get it, too — especially if your child or someone else in your household has it.

But is there anything that can actually be done to protect yourself from catching it? To some extent, proper hygiene and keeping your body’s immune system working can lessen your likelihood of getting sick, including with strep throat. Also, you can reduce your chances of contracting strep throat by taking steps to keep your throat and nasal passages healthy, and to keep away from those who are infected.

  • Wash your hands, especially after being in a public place such as a school, being around anyone with strep throat and before you eat. To wash your hands the right way, sing happy birthday twice in your head to estimate how much time is needed, and scrub well.
  • Carry hand sanitizer to use after touching public surfaces and before eating, if you can’t wash your hands.
  • Try to avoid touching public surfaces (such as by using a paper towel to open a restroom door). Avoid water fountains, which could potentially have germs from others’ mouths on them.
  • Don’t share utensils, cups or toothbrushes. This probably isn’t a good idea anyway, but it’s especially important during strep throat season, as the infection is highly contagious.
  • Don’t share face towels or pillowcases with an infected person. If someone in your household is sick, minimize your exposure to common surfaces.
  • Don’t leave dirty tissues around. Ask the infected person in your household to put their tissues directly into a wastebasket and to wash their hands as often as possible after doing so.
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose or face. No matter how hard you try, you’re probably going to get germs on your hands. But you can help prevent them from getting into your nose and mouth by not touching your face.
  • Keep your nose and mouth moisturized. Humidifiers can help keep mucus membranes moist and less susceptible to infection.
  • Make sure an infected person in your house finishes all their medication, even if they feel better, to be sure the infection is gone.
  • Keep your distance from infected people. You might not be able to help that if you live with the person. But if your coworker comes to work sick, keep your distance, since droplets from coughs or sneezes can transmit the infection.
  • Stay away from smokers. Even secondhand smoke can irritate your throat and make it more vulnerable to a strep infection.
  • Take care of your body. Getting regular sleep and exercise, and managing stress, can keep your immune system healthy and better able to resist infection.
  • If you do get strep throat, there are several things you can do to alleviate the pain.

Karla O’Dell, MD, assistant professor of clinical otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, recommends staying well hydrated; sucking on hard candy; eating cool, soft foods; and using a humidifier at night to decrease the pain of strep throat — as well as avoiding cough drops and mints, which dry out the throat.

“Gargling with salt water is OK to do if it feels good but will not make the infection go away faster or prevent one,” said Dr. O’Dell, who also is an otolaryngologist at Keck Medicine of USC. “If you do have a strep infection, the treatment is antibiotics and sometimes steroids to decrease the inflammation.

“If you have recurrent infections, you should be evaluated by an otolaryngologist.”

By Tina Donvito

If you think you may have strep throat, make an appointment with one of our otolaryngology specialists at Keck Medicine at USC. If you are in the Los Angeles area, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.