Understanding The Strep

untdtsJason awoke in the middle of the night feeling like his throat was on fire. He dragged himself out of bed to get a drink of water, but he could hardly swallow one sip. His mother heard him in the kitchen and saw that he did not look well. “What’s wrong?” she asked. He needed medical help.

“That’s what I’s like to know. My throat feels terrible,” he croaked. His mother took his temperature and announced it was 102. Then she looked down his throat. It was very red, and she thought she saw white spots.

“I’ll take you to the doctor in the morning. You may have strep throat.”

What Is Strep Throat?

Strep throat, or “strep,” is a form of sore throat caused by an infection from the streptococcus bacteria. Anyone can get strep throat, but it typically affects young people between the ages of 5 and 15.

The symptoms of strep can be very mild, very severe, or anywhere in between. These include sore throat, redness, and white pus spots in the throat; fever; and swelling of the lymph nodes under the jaw. Unlike the common cold, which can also cause a sore throat, strep is usually not accompanied by a runny nose or congestion. It can occur at any time during the year but most commonly occurs in the fall, winter, or early spring. Strep is extremely contagious–it can pass from one person to another in tiny droplets during coughing, sneezing, and even exhaling.

How Is Strep Treated?

Your doctor can diagnose strep throat by wiping the lining of your throat with a cotton swab and performing a test for the presence of streptococcus bacteria. The result can be given within minutes. Once a strep fraction is confirmed, the doctor will probably give you a complete series of penicillin pills. Some people are allergic to pencillin, in which case the doctor can prescribe another antibiotic to kill the bacteria.

Antibiotics often relieves the soreness in a day or two, but just because the soreness is gone doesn’t mean that the strep infection has actually gone away. Even after symptoms clear up, the medicine must be continued for the prescribed period of time to make sure all of the streptococcus bacteria are killed. Left untreated, a strep infection may cause very serious illnesses–rheumatic fever and nephritis.

Possible Complications

Rheumatic fever is one condition that can occur if strep throat is not treated. It can happen to anyone, but school-age children are most susceptible.

Rheumatic fever typically develops a few weeks after the symptoms of strep throat have gone away. What happens is that the body produces certain substances called antibodies to destroy the streptococcus bacteria. But in some children, these antibodies also attack the tissues of the joints–and in rare instances, the tissues of the heart.

Rheumatic fever may produce a red rash and a hot, painful swelling of certain joints, such as the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, and wrists. People with rhuematic fever often develop a fever, lose their appetite, become pale and sweaty, and generally feel crummy. The inflammation of the joints has no long-lasting effect, but if the heart tissue becomes inflamed, it can sometimes produce permanent damage to the heart valves.

Sometimes only the heart is affected–but not the joints–and there may be no obvious symptoms other than tiredness and paleness. In severe cases, the person may be breathless, and fluid may build up under the skin of the legs and back, causing swelling. Sometimes a read rash will appear just under the skin of the elbows, knees, knuckles, and the back of the head. In rare instances, rhuematic fever can lead to heart failure–it is the leading cause of heart failure in children and young adults.

Fortunately, most cases of rhuematic fever can be treated successfully. In mild cases, the patient can stay in bed until tests show that the antibody attack is over. Sometimes, the person must be sent to the hospital for treatment.

Some people with rheumatic fever may suffer permanent damage to the heart valves. In some cases, surgery must be done to have a damaged heart valve replaced.

People who have had rheumatic fever are likely to get it again every time they develop a strep infection. Some of the people must take penicillin or other antibiotics regularly to prevent another strep infection–sometimes for the rest of their life.

Kidney inflammation. Another possible result of a strep infection is a type of kidney inflammation called nephritis, which can appear two to three weeks after strep throat. As in rhuematic fever, the body produces antibodies to attack the bacteria. In some children, through a fault in the immune system, these antibodies attack the kidneys. The kidneys become inflamed, stop producing as much urine, and let blood leak into the urine.

The symptoms include swelling in the hands and feet from the buildup of fluid and sometimes headache and fever. This type of kidney disease is treated with antibiotics and other drugs. Luckily, most children who get this type of nephritis recover completely.

Strep Is Serious

The best way to avoid these complications–rheumatic fever and nephritis–is to see your doctor immediately if you have symptoms of s strep throat. This is particularly important if there has been an outbreak of strep throat at your school or in your community. And remember to finish all the medicine your doctor prescribes–even after you start to feel better.

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