It starts out like any other cold or flu virus: sore throat, chills, an elevated fever and perhaps headaches or nausea. But if the lymph nodes swell up and become sore as well, you might want to have your child open her mouth and take a look. Chances are, if you see bright red, swollen tonsils flecked with white, your child doesn't have a mere cold – they have strep throat.
Brette Sember, mother of two from Basom, N.Y., knows the symptoms of strep throat all too well, having been through several bouts of the infection known to doctors as streptococcus. When her family comes down with strep, Sember is the hardest hit. "Whenever one of the kids gets it, I always get it, and it is harder for me to get rid of it than it is for them," she says. "Last time I took five different antibiotics before it finally went away."
Strep throat is an infection caused by a bacterium called Group A Streptococcus. It can occur at any age, but is most common in school-aged children. At most, only about one in 10 sore throats in children are caused by strep.
"It's very contagious," says Dr. Russell A. Faust, chair of otolaryngology at the Children's Hospital and Research Center of Michigan. "Strep throat is spread from person to person. The bacterium is spread by coughs, sneezes, hands and kisses through direct contact with mucus secretions from the nose or throat of infected persons or through the air."
People with strep throat can spread it to others until 24 hours after beginning antibiotic treatment or for up to three weeks if not treated with antibiotics. Dr. Faust recommends washing your hands regularly when caring for a child with strep and to throw those used towels and pillowcases quickly into the wash.
Symptoms of Strep
Common symptoms of strep throat include:
- Sore throat.
- Fever above 101 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Noticeable swelling and soreness of the lymph nodes in the neck.
- Swollen, bright red tonsils, flecked with white.
- Possible headaches or nausea.
"These are not conclusive signs," says Dr. Faust. "A bad cold or flu can cause such symptoms too, and they often occur at the same time of year: between October and April. But a strep throat usually lasts longer than a sore throat associated with the cold or flu. If the throat looks bad and lasts for more than a couple days, call your pediatrician."
Strep left untreated can cause a variety of complications. If the bacteria linger too long in your child's throat without treatment, they can cause the most common complication: a pocket of white blood cells (pus) which develop into an abscess. Clearing this abscess usually requires surgery by an ear, nose and throat doctor.
According to Dr. Faust, your child's immune system makes antibodies that not only attack strep, but can also attack normal kidney and heart cells. "Possible complications also include rheumatic fever, with damage to the joints and heart valves," says Dr. Faust. "All of these complications can be life threatening."
Like the Sembers, Lisa Easterling's family is very familiar with the symptoms and complications of strep. There have been times when her family had the illness every couple of months for an entire flu season.
Easterling not only uses traditional medicine to treat her family, but has recently begun to employ alternative treatments as well. "I've always thought it made sense that there should be natural ways to treat illness," says the mother of five from Brandon, Fla. "I did some reading and found that vitamin A deficiency may be linked to recurrent tonsillitis, so I added that to the vitamin C, garlic and zinc we normally use."
Dr. Judith A. Guzman-Cottrill, of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Department of Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, believes that penicillin is the drug of choice when it comes to treating strep throat. "This can be given as a one-time injection in the office," says Dr. Guzman-Cottrill. "It can also be treated with antibiotics by mouth; however, the oral treatment is a 10-day course of antibiotics. It is very important that your child completes all 10 days of antibiotics."
Missing a dose or two, or stopping after a couple of days when the symptoms clear, can give the remaining strep bacteria a chance to develop resistance to the antibiotic. It can then come back with a worse infection. After the first 24 hours of antibiotic treatment your child can be considered non-contagious, though basic safety precautions, such as frequent hand-washing, should be taken when caring for any sick child.
It's important to make your child as comfortable as possible while they are recovering from strep throat. "Strep throat can make eating painful," says Dr. Guzman-Cottrill. "Soft foods such as mashed potatoes, applesauce and yogurts can be easier to eat, and cold foods such as ice cream, mild shakes and Popsicles can make your child's throat feel better. Plenty of liquids are very important, especially when your child is running a fever."
Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can temporarily relieve fever and pain. Never give your child aspirin, as it can cause Reyes syndrome and can be life threatening when it is used in children who have the flu. Gargling with warm salt water (1/4 teaspoon salt in 1 cup of warm water) can also help ease throat pain.
For Easterling, care goes beyond medications and soft foods. "Sometimes the old remedies truly are the best ones," she says. "There is nothing like serving up a warm bowl of fresh homemade chicken soup (with lots of garlic and black pepper) to a sick child, covering him/her with soft blankets and fluffy pillows. Skin-to-skin contact, a soothing voice and gentle kindness provide the perfect medicine. And one should never underestimate the healing properties of love!"