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The CDC is monitoring an increase in an invasive group of strep throat strains. Part of the group A family that causes strep throat, these more severe strains (sometimes referred to as iGAS) can cause rare but serious bacterial infections like necrotizing fasciitis and streptococcal toxic shock syndrome, as well as scarlet fever and death, per the CDC. So far, the increase in infections seems to be primarily affecting children.
In the UK, officials are dealing with not just an increase in group A strep, but also scarlet fever. The Independent reports that at least 19 children in the UK have died from strep as of Dec. 16. Still, in a statement from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), officials note that group A infections “remain rare,” with 126 cases this season in children ages 1 to 4 compared to 194 cases “across the whole year of the last comparably high season in 2017 to 2018.”
“I understand how this large rise in scarlet fever and ‘strep throat’ may be concerning to parents, however, the condition can be easily treated with antibiotics and it is very rare that a child will go on to become more seriously ill,” Dr. Colin Brown, deputy director of the UKHSA, says.
As parents deal with the existing tripledemic of COVID, RSV, and the flu, it’s worth knowing the signs and symptoms of strep to ensure that you can best protect your children and family.
What Is Step Throat?
Strep throat is an infection of the throat and tonsils characterized by a very sore throat, fever, chills, headache, nausea, and loss of appetite, according to Cleveland Clinic.
“Most cases of strep throat are benign and easily treated,” Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says. However, Dr. Adalja notes that in some rare cases, strep throat can lead to complications like scarlet fever, rheumatic fever (which is extremely uncommon in modern times), kidney disease, or systemic infection.
Strep throat is unlikely to go away on its own as the infection is bacterial. If you suspect you or a family member may have strep throat, go to a doctor to get tested. Treatment involves a course of antibiotics taken orally, Dr. Adalja says, typically penicillin or amoxicillin.
Also worth noting: strep is very contagious and can be spread from person to person via respiratory droplets (like when someone coughs or sneezes) and through direct contact. Children are especially susceptible to strep throat as it’s easy to become exposed in school or any setting where large groups of people are gathered. Per the CDC, strep is most common in children ages 5 through 15 but is very rare in children under 3.
Even with the appropriate antibiotic treatment, Dr. Adalja notes that those infected are still contagious until 24 hours after starting medication.
How to Prevent Step Throat in Children
While there’s no vaccine to prevent strep throat, there are hygiene measures you can take to protect yourself and others.
The most important measure you can take is to wash your hands thoroughly (with soap and water for at least 20 seconds) and often — this is especially important for children and teens attending school or daycare. The CDC says hand washing should always happen after coughing and sneezing and before eating or preparing foods. You can also consider wearing a mask to prevent coming into contact with, or spreading, respiratory droplets. If someone in your household is sick, make sure to wash cups, utensils, and other items before anyone else uses them.