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Everything you need to know about strep A

Woman taking child's temperature and looking at the thermometer
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Colder weather often means many of us will have a cold, sore throat or the flu. With cases of streptococcus A (strep A) making headlines you may be worried about how to keep your family safe this winter. We’ll go through the symptoms you need to be aware of as well as when to seek treatment, read on to find out more about strep A infections.

What is strep A?

Group A Streptococcus (GAS) also known as strep A is a group of common bacteria that are usually found on your skin or in your throat. The bacteria can live on and in your body without causing any problems, however for some people the bacterial infection can cause a range of respiratory, skin and soft tissue illnesses.

These bacteria tend to cause mild illnesses such as:

Sometimes strep A can cause more serious illnesses (iGAS infections) including:

  • Scarlet fever
  • Pneumonia
  • Meningitis
  • Septic arthritis
  • Cellulitis (if not treated quickly)

Who can get strep A?

Anyone can get a strep A infection, although these infections are more common in:

It’s rare for children under three to get strep throat, however if you’re worried about your baby or child contact your GP.

What are the symptoms of strep A?

The most common way people experience a GAS infection is a mild sore throat, often called strep throat, which can be painful and symptoms can start quickly.  

Symptoms of strep throat (GAS infection) include:

  • A sore throat and pain when swallowing
  • Fever
  • Red, swollen tonsils
  • White patches on tonsils
  • Tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth
  • Swollen neck glands
  • Headache
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea or vomiting (mainly in children)

Symptoms of iGAS infection

For those who are more vulnerable to strep A (GAS) infections including children, strep A can go on to cause more serious invasive infections known as iGAS infections such as meningitis or scarlet fever.

These infections are rare, but it’s a good idea to check for other symptoms and get medical treatment if needed.

Other symptoms to be aware of include:

  • A fever (high temperature above 38°C)
  • Severe muscle aches
  • Muscle tenderness confined to one area
  • Redness around a wound

Scarlet fever

If your child has a sore throat, high temperature, swollen neck glands and a rash they may have scarlet fever. The rash looks like small raised bumps, it first appears on the chest and stomach before spreading. It’s very infectious and easily spread so make sure to stay home from work or nursery. Contact your GP if you think your child has scarlet fever as it’s treated with antibiotics.

What to do if your child is unwell

You should call 999 or go to A&E if:

  • your child is finding it hard to breathe (they may make grunting noises or their tummy is sucking under their ribs)
  • your child is pausing when they breathe
  • your child’s skin, tongue or lips are blue
  • your child is floppy will not wake up or stay awake

You should contact your GP if:

  • your child is getting worse
  • your child isn’t feeding or eating much less than normal
  • your child or baby has had a dry nappy for 12 hours or more
  • your child or baby is showing signs of dehydration
  • your baby is under 3 months and has a temperature of 38°C
  • your baby is older than 3 months and has a temperature of 39°C or higher
  • your baby feels hotter than usual when you touch their back or chest, or feels sweaty
  • your child is very tired and irritable

If your GP surgery is closed, contact 111.

Always trust your judgement, if you think your child is unwell seek medical assistance.

How contagious is strep A?

Group A bacteria are very contagious. If you think you or your child have a strep A infection then stay home from nursery, school or work and contact your GP. Because these infections are easily passed on to other people it’s important to wash your hands regularly and make sure any children you are looking after do too.  As well as sneeze or cough into tissues and throw them in the bin afterwards. You can get strep A infections more than once, so practising good hand hygiene is important.

How is strep A spread?

Strep A is spread by close contact between people as well as through contact with contaminated objects like towels or bedding. The bacteria are transmitted through respiratory droplets when someone talks, coughs or sneezes. It can also be passed on through direct skin contact.

You can also become infected by:

  • touching contaminated towels or bedding
  • drinking from the same glass or eating from the same plate as someone who has the infection
  • eating contaminated food
  • touching skin sores

How to prevent strep A infections

The best way to help stop bacteria from spreading is to practice good hand hygiene. Make sure you, your children and other family members wash their hands with soap for 20 seconds. You can also use a hand sanitiser when you can’t wash your hands with water. Read our hand washing blog for more advice.

As strep A is spread by respiratory droplets you should:

  • Make sure to cough or sneeze into tissues, then throw these in the bin and wash your hands
  • Cough or sneeze into your elbow or upper sleeve if you don’t have a tissue
  • Wash glasses, cutlery and plates after someone else uses them
  • Avoid touching your face if your hands aren’t clean
  • Wipe down communal surfaces
  • Avoid contact with other people if you’re feeling unwell

How do you test for strep A?

You can test for strep A by swabbing your throat. Your GP can do a strep A test while checking your symptoms or you can complete a test at home.

There are two types of tests, a rapid test and a throat culture. The rapid test quickly shows if your sore throat is caused by strep A, there’s no need to send it to a lab. A throat culture test takes more time but may pick up infections that a rapid test might miss. 

Where can you get a strep A test?

You can visit your GP for a strep A test if you have symptoms or buy a self-test from pharmacies including LloydsPharmacy. The Strep A rapid self-test can be carried out at any time and gives accurate results in just 10 minutes. 

How do you treat strep A?

Strep A is caused by bacteria rather than a virus so, it’s usually treated with antibiotics. If you or your child has a sore throat, caused by strep A, contact your GP for further advice. You should stay at home while you’re unwell as strep A is contagious. You can treat the symptoms of strep throat at home. You can ease the pain with painkillers or take sore throat medicines, just remember to read the dosage instructions carefully.

Shop treatments

Make sure to stay hydrated and get plenty of rest too. Read our sore throat treatment guide for more advice.

The best thing you can do is to look after yourself and give your child the same care you would for a cold or the flu. Also familiarise yourself with iGAS symptoms (as mentioned above). You know your child better than anyone, if you’re worried seek medical assistance.

References

www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/infections-and-poisoning/streptococcus-a-strep-a
www.nth.nhs.uk/content/uploads/2017/09/IPC473.1-Group-A-Streptococcal-Infection.pdf
www.cdc.gov/groupastrep/diseases-public/index.html
www.cdc.gov/groupastrep/diseases-public/strep-throat.html
https://111.wales.nhs.uk/encyclopaedia/s/article/streptococcusa(strepa)
www.cdc.gov/groupastrep/diseases-public/scarlet-fever.html
www.nhs.uk/conditions/scarlet-fever