Is strep just a sore throat?

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In some instances, strep can mean more than a sore throat.

A bacterium known as Group A streptococcus causes strep throat and many other infections. These can range from a mild skin or throat infection to severe, life-threatening conditions.

Strep throat affects the throat and tonsils. Symptoms can include painful swallowing, fever, headache, and red tonsils with white spots or streaks of pus on them. Tiny red spots may appear at the back of the mouth.

Strep throat is most common in children, but it affects people of all ages. Up to three in 10 children with a sore throat have strep throat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That compares to one in 10 adults.

Strep bacteria are contagious and can spread through respiratory droplets or contact with a contaminated surface or infected person. More than 10 million mild infections (throat and skin) occur every year, according to the National Institutes of Health. Strep is usually cured within 10 days with proper treatment that includes antibiotics.

In some cases, strep bacteria may spread, causing infection in the sinuses, skin, blood, and middle ear. It also can lead to the following inflammatory illnesses:

  • Scarlet fever, a mostly mild infection characterized by a prominent rash
  • Rheumatic fever, a serious condition that can affect the heart, joints, nervous system and skin
  • Poststreptococcal reactive arthritis, a condition that causes inflammation of the joints
  • A rare kidney disease

Group A strep bacteria can even cause bloodstream infections, multi-organ infection, and flesh-eating disease.

A possible relationship exists between strep infection and a rare condition called pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with group A streptococci (PANDAS).

Children with this condition experience worsened symptoms of neuropsychiatric conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or tic disorders, with strep. However, this relationship remains unproved and controversial, according to the Mayo Clinic.