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Though flu is a popular winter illness culprit, it's not the only one out there. Chances are you'll also encounter two other popular contenders – strep throat and bronchitis.

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February 11, 2019

How much do you know about strep throat and bronchitis? While one is a bacterial infection that may lead to unpleasant throat pain and difficulty swallowing, the other is an inflammation that settles in your chest and is accompanied by coughing and mucus. Can you spot their symptoms? We're here to help you learn more.

Strep Throat

It's a fun word to say – Streptococcus. But it is one word every parent dreads hearing when they take their child to the doctor. Anyone can contract strep throat, but children are more likely to get it – particularly those between the ages of 5 and 15 – because their immune systems aren't fully developed yet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that up to 3 in 10 children with a sore throat actually have strep throat, while only 1 in 10 adults with a sore throat actually have strep.

a young boy in pain holding his throat

Strep is a bacterial infection that affects the throat and tonsils, and its symptoms aren't very pleasant. Those with strep throat will likely encounter:

  • A sore throat and painful swallowing
  • Red or swollen tonsils
  • Tiny red spots at the back of your mouth
  • Tender, swollen lymph nodes in your neck
  • Fever or headache
  • Nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain (often in children)
  • Bright red rash covering your body
  • Body aches or chills

Generally speaking, the infection itself is mild, but it's painful nonetheless. There may also be more severe cases, during which you may encounter a loss of appetite, a high fever, and difficulty swallowing or breathing. Emergency care should be sought in these cases.

To keep those strep germs at bay, it's important to first understand how it's spread. You've heard it once and you'll hear it again, try your hardest to contain your coughs and sneezes to a tissue or the crook of your arm and to frequently wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. Strep throat is just another example of why it's so important to practice those hygiene habits. Strep is most commonly spread by breathing in droplets of bacteria exhaled by an infected person, meaning they're spreading germs when they cough or sneeze. You could also pick up strep throat by simply touching something where those infected droplets have landed and transferring them to your nose or mouth unknowingly, or by sharing items like water bottles or utensils with an infected person. Take it from us, it's okay not to share this time of year.

It's tough to determine whether or not you have strep throat because it may share symptoms with other conditions. The best way to confirm your suspicions is by visiting your doctor or a healthcare professional, who will likely examine your throat and lymph nodes. They'll want to know more about your symptoms and history with strep throat. Your healthcare provider may also take a swab from the back of your throat for further analysis. 

There are two common tests used to diagnose strep throat – a rapid antigen test and a throat culture. The first one is just that – a rapid, fast test that'll have results in minutes after swabbing the back of your throat. Aka, you're back on the couch watching re-runs of your favorite show faster. As for the throat culture, it may take several days for results to come back. Similar to the other test, though, a swab is taken from the back of your throat and tonsils. 

So what happens when you are diagnosed with strep? The good news is that since strep throat is a bacterial infection there are antibiotics, like penicillin or amoxicillin that your doctor can prescribe to get you on the mend. Medicine can help lessen both the duration of your illness and contagious period as well as help to prevent some complications of strep, most notably rheumatic heart disease. If you're considering making any plans, keep in mind that you should avoid contact with anyone for at least 24 hours after you start taking the antibiotics. Strep throat can be highly contagious, and that 24-hour period will help protect you and others from the unpleasant illness.

While you wait to feel better, there are measures you can take at home to get you or your child back to your normal, healthy selves. Consider these tips the next time you or a loved one has strep throat, though you should consult with your primary care physician before using these in small children:

  • Cool liquids can help soothe the throat and keep you hydrated
  • Warm liquids help soothe an inflamed throat and tonsils
  • Throat lozenges or throat sprays may also numb or soothe your throat
  • Gargling warm salt water can help soothe throat soreness

What Our Doc Says:

"Even if you're not running a fever, Tylenol and ibuprofen can help with throat pain and over-the-counter lozenges or sprays can also provide relief. It's also important to remember that dehydration makes a sore throat even more painful. Some prefer warm drinks, some prefer cold drinks, but even though it hurts to swallow, you need to stay hydrated until the antibiotics kick in."

-Nancie Fitch, DO, Area Medical Director, MedExpress

Bronchitis

Speaking of unpleasant illnesses, bronchitis is another common winter ailment that can affect your throats nearby neighbor, the bronchial tubes. Curious about what exactly your bronchial tubes are? They're the passages that carry air from the trachea (windpipe) into the lungs and need to be kept clear and healthy for proper breathing. When the lining of the bronchial tubes gets inflamed, a thick mucus is produced, which irritates the lungs and breathing process.

a young woman in pain grabbing her throat

There are two types of bronchitis: chronic and acute. Acute bronchitis is more common, so common that you may have heard it called by another name before – a chest cold.3 Why? Because it's an infection in your chest that lasts anywhere from a week to 10 days and has some cold-like symptoms, including:

  • Cough
  • Production of mucus when coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Slight fever and chills
  • Sore chest

Where exactly does bronchitis come from? Similar to the flu and colds, acute bronchitis is usually caused by viruses. It typically follows the onset of a cold or another respiratory infection. But wait, how can you prevent acute bronchitis? Again, it's recommended to practice healthy hygiene habits. Washing your hands and using hand sanitizer can go a long way in reducing your risk of catching these nasty viral infections.

Though it's not always winter-related, there's also chronic bronchitis to consider. Chronic bronchitis is associated with coughs that lasts several months, with recurring bouts or flair-ups every few years. While it is generally associated with smoking, that's not always the case. It can also be brought on through dust, toxins, and air pollution.  If you're exposed to fumes, dust, or smoke for extended periods of time, it might not be a bad idea to wear a surgical mask to help prevent inhaling these irritants.

Healthcare providers can help diagnose bronchitis by learning more about your symptoms and medical history. In some cases, they may also order blood work to help spot infections, or an X-ray to help identify any issues in your lungs and bronchial tubes.

Similar to many other illnesses, the treatment plan for bronchitis includes rest and hydration.

Unfortunately, antibiotics won't help kick it to the curb, since bronchitis is typically a viral infection. Instead, you can take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help manage any discomfort until the illness has run its course. Sometimes, your doctor may prescribe a bronchodilator to open up your airways. And while you're sick, it's a good idea to avoid secondhand smoke or other fumes. You can also try:

  • Taking over-the-counter cough suppressants
  • Consuming a couple teaspoons of honey to help soothe an irritated throat
  • Using a humidifier, which will help loosen and break up mucus

It's always a good idea to discuss treatment, including over-the-counter medications, with your healthcare provider.

What Our Doc Says:

"Bronchitis is usually viral and best treated with symptomatic medications. Some swear by multi-symptom products, but sometimes you get medications mixed in there for symptoms that you don't have. Your doctor may consider treating each symptom individually. Drink lots of fluids and get lots of rest. If you start running a fever, or wheezing, it's best to get evaluated."

-Nancie Fitch, DO, Area Medical Director, MedExpress

Until spring weather breaks, you're likely going to encounter a number of winter illnesses and conditions. Hopefully next time you'll better understand what's plaguing you and what can be done about it. And if a winter worry does strike, MedExpress is here to help you get back to your best you.

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References:

1 CDC: Strep Throat. Last updated November 1, 2018. Accessed December 11, 2018.

2 HealthLine: Strep Throat. Last updated January 27, 2016. Accessed December 11, 2018.

3 Mayo Clinic: Bronchitis. Last updated April 11, 2017. Accessed December 11, 2018.

4 NHLBI: Bronchitis. Accessed December 18, 2018.

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