Sometimes, a sore throat is just a sore throat. Other times, it’s a sign of the dreaded strep bacteria.
Just under the wire for Kids ENT Health month, we sat down with Mass. Eye and Ear pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Gillian Diercks to discuss all things strep, including what to do if your child repeatedly contracts the infection.
Is it just a sore throat, or is it strep?
Strep throat is a bacterial infection of the throat or pharynx. Kids with strep often have throat pain and difficulty swallowing, and they often show other symptoms as well, including fever, swollen lymph nodes, headache or stomach pain. “Usually, strep comes on suddenly without a stuffy nose or cough, which can help distinguish it from the sore throat that often accompanies a cold,” Dr. Diercks said.
Not all sore throats are strep, and a diagnosis from a doctor is the only way to know if your child truly has the infection. A pediatrician or ear, nose and throat specialist can perform a strep test in the office, which may be able to provide confirmation of the diagnosis within several hours.
Treating strep throat is extremely important; if left untreated strep can lead to serious health complications. For that reason, it’s important to visit a doctor if your suspect that your child has strep.
But how much is too much strep throat?
Since strep is such a contagious infection, children often contract it repeatedly. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, “too much” strep throat is generally:
- seven infections in one year,
- five infections per year for two years, or
- three infections per year for three years.
If a child is contracting strep this frequently, the infections are most likely taking a toll on the entire family.
“Parents often come to my office concerned about the amount of school their child is missing. Although strep can be treated quickly with antibiotics, these children are still missing some school. Absences can really add up after multiple occurrences of strep, over an extended period of time,” Dr. Diercks said.
If your child is repeatedly suffering from strep, talk to your doctor or an ENT specialist about alternative treatment options, such as long-term antibiotics or surgery. Tonsillectomy can be an effective way to treat children for recurrent strep, but surgery is not the answer for everyone. Dr. Diercks advises parents to carefully consider the potential benefits and risks of surgery. “My advice is to think about what works best for your entire family in the long run before making a decision.”
How do I keep my family strep-free, especially during the winter?
Strep throat is spread through droplets in the air, similar to the spread of influenza. Coughing, not washing hands and sharing drinks or utensils all contribute to the spread of strep.
Children can contract strep throat at any time of the year, but it is much more common during the winter months. During the winter, kids are in closer proximity at school and indoors, and they may not be practicing good hand hygiene or covering their mouths when they cough.
To prevent the spread of strep, Dr. Diercks recommends that you talk to your kids about good hand hygiene and the importance of not sharing drinks or utensils at school.
Recurring strep throat within families is common, because siblings are in such close proximity at home. If your child begins showing symptoms of strep, a visit to the doctor is important. That way, if necessary, treatment can begin immediately, preventing the further spread of strep at school and at home.
Reducing the spread of strep throat is important, especially during the winter months. If you suspect that your child has strep, remember to take action quickly by visiting your pediatrician or an ENT specialist.