What is Group A Streptococcus (STREP)?
Streptococcus is a bacterium often found in the throat and on the skin. People may carry streptococci in the throat or on the skin and have no symptoms of illness. Most STREP infections are relatively mild illnesses such as "strep throat," or impetigo. On rare occasions, these bacteria can cause other severe and even life-threatening diseases.
How is Streptococcus spread?
The bacteria are spread through direct contact with mucus from the nose or throat of people who are infected or through contact with infected wounds or sores on the skin. People who become ill, such as those with strep throat or skin infections, are most likely to spread the infection. Those who carry the bacteria but have no symptoms are much less contagious. Treatment with an antibiotic for 24 hours or longer generally eliminates the spread of the bacteria. It is very important to complete the entire course of antibiotics as prescribed. It is not likely that household items like plates, cups, or toys spread these bacteria.
What kinds of illnesses are caused by streptococcal infection?
STREP infections may have a range of symptoms:
- No illness
- Mild illness (Strep throat or skin infection such as impetigo)
- Severe illness (necrotizing fascitis, streptococcal toxic shock syndrome)
Severe and sometimes life-threatening STREP disease may occur when bacteria get into parts of the body where bacteria usually are not found such as in the blood, muscle or the lungs. These infections are termed "invasive STREP disease."
Why does invasive streptococcal disease occur?
Invasive STREP infections occur when the bacteria get past the person's defenses. This may occur when someone has sores or other breaks in the skin that allow the bacteria to get into the tissue, or when the person's ability to fight off the infection is lowered because of a chronic illness or an illness that affects the immune system. Some virulent strains of STREP are more likely to cause severe disease than others.
Who is most at risk of getting invasive streptococcal disease?
Few people who come in contact with STREP will develop invasive STREP disease. Most people will have a throat or skin infection, and some may have no symptoms at all. Although healthy people can get invasive STREP disease, those with chronic illnesses like cancer, diabetes, kidney dialysis and those who use medications such as steroids have a higher risk.
What can be done to help prevent streptococcal infections?
The spread of STREP infection can be reduced by good hand washing, especially after coughing and sneezing and before preparing foods or eating. Anyone with a sore throat should be seen by a doctor who can perform tests to find out whether the illness is strep throat. If the test result shows strep throat, the person should stay home from work, school or day care until 24 hours after taking an antibiotic. All wounds should be kept clean and watched for possible signs of infection such as redness, swelling, drainage and pain at the wound site. Anyone with signs of an infected wound, especially if fever occurs, should seek medical care.
It is not necessary for all people exposed to someone with an invasive strep infection (i.e. necrotizing fascitis or strep toxic shock syndrome) to receive antibiotic therapy to prevent infection. However, in certain circumstances, antibiotic therapy may be appropriate. That decision should be made after consulting with your doctor.