Strep A: How you can spot the deadly illness - explainer

Streptococcus A can cause a wide variety of infections, from a mild illness to a life-threatening one, from a sore throat to invasive bacterium.

 Strep A bacteria. (photo credit: FLICKR)
Strep A bacteria.
(photo credit: FLICKR)

Parents across the UK have been asked in recent weeks to pay attention to the symptoms of Streptococcus type A infection in their kids following an alarming increase in the number of cases which has already led to the death of nine young people. 

The British health agency (UKHSA) issued a warning to parents, telling them to seek medical help immediately if they recognize Strep A signs in their kids in order to prevent the infection from becoming severe.

Strep A usually causes a mild illness but according to reports in the UK, an invasive form of the bacterium known as iGAS increased this year, especially in children under age 10

According to British media, in a normal winter one or two children under age ten die from Strep A. Yet this year so far, nine children have already died, and the concern is growing that there will be more tragic cases.

What is Strep A?

A researcher uses a microscope (credit: INGIMAGE)A researcher uses a microscope (credit: INGIMAGE)

Strep A is a family of bacteria that belongs to the gram-positive cocci (spherical-shaped) group of bacteria which under a microscope appear to be in a chain. 

The bacterium can cause a wide variety of infections, from only mild symptoms to a life-threatening illness. Infection with the bacteria occurs by direct contact with mucous membranes or infected skin.

Strep A causes a red, sore throat along with urticaria and impetigo which are skin infections. These diseases are considered mild, but they may have complications such as necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria), joint disease (arthritis), bone infections (osteomyelitis), meningitis, sinusitis and pneumonia.

Even after the infection passes, diseases such as gout and glomerulonephritis (kidney disease) may develop as a result of the body's immune response against the bacteria.

It should be noted that these complications are dangerous, but less common.

How to prevent serious illness

Pharyngitis, i.e. a red, sore throat, is the most common bacterial disease caused by strep A in childhood especially in the first years of school, and usually not before age three. 

The onset of the disease is sudden and characterized by a strong sore throat accompanied by high fever, weakness and fatigue. Tonsils are enlarged, red and on them you can see dots of white discharge.

The pharynx infection can pass even without antibiotic treatment, but the treatment has two important roles: shortening the duration of the disease, and more importantly it prevents disease. 

A throat swab will identify the bacteria in the pharynx, and it’s important that the test is done by a medical professional which can help identify the actual bacteria strain.

The skin infections from strep A are varied and usually not life-threatening. It’s important to be examined by a doctor in any case of sores, rash or generalized redness without a known cause. 

Luckily, in most cases antibiotic treatment will solve the problem, but it’s crucial to finish the entire treatment according to the doctor's instructions, or else the bacteria could return, replicate and be even harder to treat.