Stricken with Strep

Here’s a primer on dealing with serious illness

By Jennifer McDougall

Sore throats are nothing to worry about, right?

It depends.

Tabitha McNamara, a clinical nursing instructor at Trocaire College, said a sore throat could be a symptom of strep throat. “The symptoms of strep throat can vary. They can include a sore throat, fever, cough, and white spots or swelling on the tonsils or the back of the throat,” she explained.

However, she noted symptoms can also be a little different. “Some people get flu-like symptoms, including a fever, upset stomach, and vomiting — and people don’t associate that with strep, so they don’t think that’s what it is,” she said.

McNamara said strep throat is diagnosed through visual assessment and a throat culture, after a sample is collected via a throat swab. She said rapid strep tests aren’t always as accurate, but they can be a good initial indicator. If the results indicate strep is present, it’s treated with antibiotics; amoxicillin is the most common choice.

“If left untreated, strep can lead to rheumatic fever in children, and that’s more severe because it can lead to heart valve disorders,” McNamara said. She said it can cause the same problems in adults, and she warned that untreated strep can also lead to necrotizing fasciitis, also known as flesh-eating bacteria.

Finally, McNamara offered a fact that may be news to many people, but may be helpful in determining why certain people seem to get strep repeatedly.

“Some people can be carriers of strep, which means they carry it all the time, but they have no symptoms or issues. If someone in the family keeps getting strep, it can help to determine if anyone in the household is a carrier of it,” she explained.

Not just a sore throat

Jennifer Blankenship has experience dealing with strep throat. All three of her children have had it, and all three ended up having their tonsils out as a result. She emphasized, as McNamara did, that strep throat may not be just a sore throat. “Ours always presented first with a high fever, vomiting, and then lack of appetite. They didn’t even always complain of throat pain, at least not for the first few days,” she said.

As a voice of experience with strep, she offered advice for people who may be new to it. “Be aggressive with it, and find a specialist if it comes back. Ask questions, and don’t be afraid to advocate for your child,” she urged. For Blankenship, this meant working very closely with her children’s pediatrician and otolaryngologist, also known as an ear, nose, and throat specialist.

She also added a caution about how tricky the symptoms can be. “The first couple of times, I think we missed the early signs and chalked it up to a bug, which can be a regular occurrence when kids are in school or daycare,” she said. She recommended taking notes during medical appointments because it helps to be able to refer back to them if strep comes back.

Feeling ‘awful’

Although many people think of strep throat as a childhood illness, Suzanne Hebert is proof it can strike adults, as well. She had strep throat as a child, but it came back with a vengeance after she had children.

Each time she got it, she had a sore throat and a fever, but she also had swelling in her throat and white spots in her mouth. It kept her home from work and interfered with her daily life. “The frequency of it bothered me, and every time it came back, I knew how awful I was going to feel,” she said.

When she was 68 years old, her doctor recommended that she have her tonsils out. Hebert followed up by seeing an ENT for a second opinion. Hebert had her tonsils out, and she hasn’t had strep throat since.

She said people should give the issue serious consideration if a doctor recommends removing the tonsils. “It gets harder as you get older, so if you’re going to do it, it’s better to do it sooner rather than later,” she said.

She noted some people seem to be prone to strep throat. “It’s important to watch out for it and be aware of the patterns, so you can get treatment right away when it comes back,” she said.