New back to school recommendations for strep throat!

Many years ago I heard about research showing that throat cultures clear within 12 hours after the first dose of antibiotic for strep throat. I’ve been waiting since then for a change to our recommendation that kids must stay home from school for 24 hours after starting antibiotics. Guess what? The new Red Book (an infectious disease book from the American Academy of Pediatrics) is out and the back to school recommendations for strep throat have changed! This can help many parents get back to work when their kids can return to school and daycare earlier. But it doesn’t mean you should rush in to demand antibiotics for every sore throat!

Redbook return to school strep guidelines, 2018.
Red Book return to school strep guidelines, 2018.

I have summarized the Clinical Practice Guideline for the Diagnosis and Management of Group A Streptococcal Pharyngitis: 2012 Update by the Infectious Diseases Society of America previously. These official guidelines have not been updated, but the Red Book represents the AAP official recommendations.

What is Strep throat?

Strep throat is not just any sore throat. Many viruses can cause sore throats but strep throat is caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria, also known as Streptococcus pyogenes.

Strep throat is not common in kids under 3 years. The incidence of strep throat peaks in young childhood and is less common in teens and adults.

A strep test is needed to diagnose strep throat in kids. Physicians and other healthcare providers can use Centor Criteria for adults, but a clinical diagnosis alone is not recommended in children.

Strep throat typically causes a sore throat, fever, swollen tonsils, and swollen lymph nodes (gland) under the jaw. Some kids will get a sandpapery rash on their trunk. When this happens, it is called scarlet fever. I also see a significant number of kids who get a stomach ache and vomiting with strep.

Pos strep
Strep throat sometimes causes white patches on the tonsils. This is called exudate.
Streptococcal pharyngitis
Red spots on the roof of the mouth is considered very specific for strep throat.

Does strep throat need to be treated?

Most parents and kids want antibiotic treatment so that the miserable symptoms of strep go away faster, but do we need to treat strep?

You might be surprised, but antibiotics are not prescribed to treat strep throat symptoms. Antibiotics are used to prevent serious complications from the strep bacteria. Pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can be used to treat the fever and sore throat symptoms. School aged children, teens, and adults can also use throat lozenges for sore throats. (Do not use these in kids who are still at risk of choking.)

So the simple answer is we don’t always need to treat strep with antibiotics. In the days before antibiotics, most people got better. Even now there are some people who don’t go to a clinic when they’re sick, so they recover on their own.

Use antibiotics wisely

There are a lot of reasons to use antibiotics only when necessary.

One major reason is to help delay antibiotic resistance.

Some people have allergic reactions or side effects to antibiotics, so we should not use them lightly.

They also can increase total healthcare costs. Although penicillin and amoxicillin (which are recommended for strep throat) are inexpensive, treating strep throat does increase healthcare costs. The sheer number of illnesses that present to clinics for evaluation, the cost of testing, and the cost of the treatments can all add up. Of course, returning to work a day earlier can make an impact on our economy as well.

If your child has symptoms not characteristic for strep and is not otherwise high risk, you can monitor and treat for a few days at home.

But antibiotics make us feel better faster, right?

Antibiotics tend to shorten the symptoms by about 16 hours.

They have been shown to prevent serious consequences of strep infections, but those are rare, so the risk/benefit ratio may not support treating every case of strep. (Though I still do treat strep when I see it.)

Look at risk/benefit ratio for all treatments

If you want to read an example of the risks/benefits of treating strep throat, see this (slightly technical) case report.

Remember that this report simply highlights one case, it cannot be generalized to everyone with strep throat. It shows how doctors work through the risks and benefits with everything we treat. We don’t always state things like this out loud, but they go through our mind as we develop treatment plans.

It’s common in medicine to have case reviews such as this. Any one case does not change our treatment guidelines, but they can help us start to understand issues. They often serve to initiate further studies.

Are there risks to not treating?

Untreated Strep infections can lead to complications.

The character Beth in the classic book “Little Women” died of heart complications after scarlet fever.

(If nostalgia hits you, you can get the entire series of the March family on Kindle for less than a dollar!)

Complications from untreated strep can include tonsil abscesses, ear infections, sinus infections, arthritis, heart damage, and kidney damage. While some of these can be severe, thankfully the more severe complications are rare, even without treatment.

There is also a condition called PANDAS (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders) that some experts think is related to strep. This can involve the sudden onset or worsening of tic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, mood changes, and change in quality of school work. Throat swabs can be normal, but a blood test can help to identify a recent strep exposure. Testing is not recommended for everyone with tics or OCD, but talk to your pediatrician if symptoms start out of the blue and you’re concerned.

Don’t let the new recommendations make you rush in…

Strep throat is rarely an emergency. Don’t rush to the ER after business hours to have your child checked as soon as you notice symptoms. You can use pain relievers as well as cold drinks, smoothies and popsicles to manage the symptoms at home initially. Just because the back to school recommendations for strep throat allow return 12 hours after antibiotics start, coming in too soon might not help in the long run.

About the testing available:

The test commonly used to identify strep is most accurate after symptoms have been there for awhile. The rapid Strep test for the presence of the strep bacteria about 97% of the time. A culture done at the same time may grow the strep bacteria in a few days, but antibiotics are not recommended until either the rapid test or culture is positive, so you’re not getting a head start on antibiotics if the initial rapid test is negative.

Because the rapid strep test looks at the presence of strep , strep testing just tells you the germ is there. The clinical symptoms of strep disease is why you need treatment.  Up to 30% of school age children have strep in their throat. The strep is not necessarily causing disease without symptoms of strep. These symptoms include rapid onset of sore throat, headache, tummy ache and fever, without cough and runny nose.  This is the tricky part and the reason you need your pediatrician to determine if testing is needed.
Do not use telehealth to get your sore throat treated.

In children it is not recommended to diagnose strep throat without a throat swab test. This should be done in a medical clinic to avoid inaccurate testing.

Treating early in the course might diminish the opportunity for your body to fight strep off the next time it’s exposed. Yes, treating may allow a return to work, school or daycare in 12 hours, but if you can prevent the next occurrence (of course no guarantees…) wouldn’t you want to?

When should you not test or treat?

Kids under 3 years old

Strep throat is not common in kids under 3 , so it’s not recommended to test them.

I admit that if an older sibling or caregiver has strep and they have strep symptoms, I will test 2-3 year olds.  The recommendation is to not bother. Even if they have strep, treating does not tend to alter their course. Kids in this age group tend to not develop the severe consequences of strep like older kids, even when not treated.

Viral symptoms

Although both viruses and strep bacteria can cause fever and sore throat, there are clues that it is not strep. When strep carriers get sick, they can have a false positive throat culture. The strep that shows on testing is not the cause of their symptoms and leads to over treatment.

If there is a cough or runny nose, the sore throat is most likely a viral illness. A strep test is not recommended.

When there are blisters in the mouth or a characteristic hand, foot, mouth rash, they have a viral illness. A strep test is not recommended.

Recent strep

Because the rapid strep test looks at antigens the body makes in response to strep and not the bacteria itself, recent strep can affect rapid strep testing. The antigen can remain in the throat for a time after treatment, so a strep culture is recommended for several weeks after treatment of strep throat.

It is not recommended to do a throat culture after treatment unless a person is high risk for complications, such as rheumatic fever.

contacts of someone with strep

It isn’t recommended to test people who have been exposed to strep unless they have symptoms. If they do not have symptoms, a positive test is more likely to be a falsely positive (not true) test. It could lead to unnecessary antibiotics.

If a sibling over 3 years of age develops symptoms, it is recommended to test and not just treat.

Pets?

Pets do not get strep, so no need to swab your pet!

Why not just test every sore throat?

Studies show that 1 in 4 kids can have strep in their throat at any given time. They are simply carriers, but not truly infected with strep. Contrary to popular belief, strep carriers are not likely to spread strep infections.

If a strep carrier has a viral illness, they can have a positive test but the strep is not the cause of their illness. Antibiotics are not needed for this at all. A positive test leads to using antibiotics that are not needed, which can increase the risk of side effects and allergic reactions. They give a false sense of security of treatment, but if it’s a viral illness, antibiotics are not treating anything. Kids can be sent back to daycare or school while still contagious simply because they’re “being treated.”

“My child always has a negative rapid test but the culture is positive. Can’t we just treat?”

There are many reasons this can happen.
One of the reasons is that the child is a strep carrier, so has no strep disease. In this situation, there aren’t antigens to make the rapid test positive, but the culture will grow the bacteria. If you recall from above, carriers do not need to be treated with antibiotics in most cases. I often find that these kids continue to feel sick several hours after starting antibiotics for strep. Most kids with strep feel better really quickly after antibiotics are started!
It’s also possible that the child is brought in for testing early in the course of illness each time so the antigens have not yet developed. This is one reason to not rush in at the first sign of possible strep. Let the body do its thing first.

My back to school recommendations for strep throat:

If your child has some of the symptoms of strep (sore throat, fever, tender bumps in the neck, vomiting, or rash) consider strep throat.

Symptoms of typical viral illnesses make strep less likely. These might include runny nose, cough, red goopy eyes, or diarrhea. No testing is recommended.

It can be difficult to tell if a runny nose from allergies despite the strep throat or if the runny nose is part of the viral illness that includes a sore throat, so if in doubt, bring your child in for evaluation. The doctor can determine if testing should be done. Do not use telehealth for this. I recommend seeing your primary care physician during normal business hours.

If there is strep throat, penicillin or amoxicillin are the preferred treatments unless there is documented allergy.

Your child may return to school 12 hours after the first dose of antibiotic if they are otherwise well. (If they are not feeling great, they likely have something else going on!)

Thank you!

Thanks to Dr. Kathy Cain of Topeka Pediatrics for some helpful editing tips!

 

Guidelines for treatment of strep throat: Is it viral or strep?

New guidelines for treatment of strep throat were published in the Oxford Journals of Clinical Infectious Diseases this month.  They attempt to decrease the overuse of antibiotics to treat sore throats caused by a virus, since antibiotics are ineffective against viral illnesses. Streptococcus (AKA Strep) is a bacteria, and antibiotics do treat infections with Strep. (See Clinical Practice Guideline for the Diagnosis and Management of Group A Streptococcal Pharyngitis: 2012 Update by the Infectious Diseases Society of America for the full report.)

While these guidelines are written for physicians and other medical providers, if patients understand the guidelines it can help them know what to do when they (or their children) have a sore throat.  Many parents presume Strep with every sore throat, but in reality only 20-30% of sore throats are bacterial in kids.  The large majority (70-80%) are from a virus and do not need an antibiotic. In adults the number of sore throats needing antibiotics is even lower – only 5-15%.  Nationwide, 70% of people who go to a medical provider with a sore throat get an antibiotic. This means many are treated unnecessarily.

Why do we treat Strep throat with antibiotics?

In most cases Strep throat will be handled by the body’s immune system over a relatively short time.  Without treatment most symptoms go away within a few days.

Before antibiotics were available most people with Strep throat got better on their own. Unfortunately the Strep bacteria can affect the heart (rheumatic fever) or kidneys (streptococcal glomerulonephritis) or cause other problems if left untreated. Treating with antibiotics early can prevent some of these complications.

Why do we want to avoid antibiotics if it is a virus?

Antibiotics do not help the body get better or even feel better faster if a virus is causing the symptoms. They simply are ineffective against viruses.

They do carry risks: diarrhea and allergic reactions are two relatively common issues.

Overusing antibiotics leads to bacterial resistance, which means when someone is sick with a bacterial infection, several antibiotics might fail because the bacteria has become a “super bug” and less inappropriate use will cause fewer super bugs.

How can you know when to bring your kids in for evaluation?

Strep throat and viral sore throats have a lot of common symptoms.

Strep throat typically causes a sudden onset of one or more of the following:
  • sore throat
  • fever
  • rash
  • headache
  • abdominal pain
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • swollen glands

If there are “cold” symptoms such as runny nose, cough, hoarse voice, diarrhea, or eye discharge, it is more often from a viral upper respiratory tract infection, not a bacterial infection.

Children under 3 years of age are less likely to get Strep throat, but it is very common in school aged children.

The only way to know if it is Strep throat or not is to get a throat swab and test it.  A rapid antigen test is typically available in less than 10 minutes. If it is positive, treatment is indicated. If it is negative, a culture can be done to confirm Strep or no Strep.  This takes about 2 days.

To prevent rheumatic fever, treatment should be started within 9 days of symptoms starting. Unfortunately treatment does not affect the kidney disease that rarely is a complication of Strep throat.

It is not an emergency to run in to the ER overnight for possible Strep throat, but do bring kids in if they have symptoms of Strep without viral symptoms.

Also bring them in if their viral symptoms warrant evaluation in their own right (difficulty breathing, extreme pain, dehydration) or if you are unsure what is going on.

My summary of the guidelines:

1. Establish the diagnosis by swabbing the throat and doing a rapid antigen test and/or culture.  Do not treat “because it looks like Strep” because it usually isn’t.

2. If the rapid antigen test is negative in children and adolescents, a back up culture is indicated. Adults do not need a back up culture unless Strep is highly suspected.

3. Blood titers are not recommended to check for current Strep throat infection because they reflect past infections. These are used to evaluate more chronic conditions.

4. Testing is not recommended if symptoms suggest a viral infection (cough, runny nose, hoarseness, oral ulcers). Falsely positive Strep tests can happen, and then an unnecessary antibiotic would be given with a virus infection.

5. Children less than 3 years of age do not routinely need to be tested for Strep because they are very low risk of complications of rheumatic fever, but the provider can test them if they have known exposure and symptoms of Strep.

6. Follow up throat cultures after treatment are not routinely recommended but can be considered in certain circumstances (if carrier status is suspected).

7. Testing or treatment of contacts of patients with Strep throat is not recommended if those contacts have no symptoms. (This means if Brother has a positive Strep test, there is no need to test or treat Sister if she has no symptoms. But… if she develops symptoms she should come in for a test.)

8. Patients with Strep throat should be treated with an appropriate antibiotic for an appropriate time. This is typically a penicillin (such as amoxicillin) for 10 days. For those with a penicillin allergy, cephalosporins or clindamycin or clarithromycin for 10 days is recommended. Azithromycin for 5 days at Strep dosing levels is acceptable for patients with allergies to other antibiotics.

9. Use of fever reducer/pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, should be considered as needed. Aspirin should be avoided in children. Steroids are not recommended.

10. Patients with recurrent Strep throat at close intervals should be evaluated for chronic Strep throat carrier status with repeated viral infections.

11. Strep carriers do not require antibiotics because they are unlikely to spread Strep to close contacts and are not at risk of developing complications of Strep (rheumatic fever).

12. Tonsillectomy is not recommended to reduce the frequency of Strep throat.