What is Strep A? (Streptococcus A)

To read the newspaper headlines today, it seems as if Strep A is the new COVID. That’s not the case – Strep A is a very common bacteria that many of us already have in our throats and on our skin. However, there are obvious dangers with Strep A for those who are vulnerable to it, which is why it’s important to understand what can happen if you end up with an infection as a result of coming into contact with it.

What exactly is Strep A?

A common bacterium that goes by the name of Group A streptococcus. Many of us will already have this in our body. The problem arises when Strep A ends up in areas of the body where it shouldn’t be (such as the lungs or the bloodstream) – that’s when infections can be challenging. We can break Strep A down into two types of infection, mild and serious:

  • Mild Strep A infection – These are infections that can easily be treated with antibiotics, such as impetigo, scarlet fever, cellulitis and pharyngitis.
  • Serious Strep A infection – These tend to come from a more invasive strain of Strep A known as iGAS (invasive Group A streptococcus). When the bacterium gets into the lungs, the bloodstream or another part of the body where it shouldn’t be, it can make someone (especially children) very sick and even fatal.

How do you catch Strep A?

It is passed from person to person in the same way as many other infections – through infected droplets in a sneeze or cough, or from a wound. Some of us may have Strep A in our bodies and not notice it at all while others can become very unwell.

What is scarlet fever?

There are currently high numbers of cases of scarlet fever in the UK, which is an infection caused by Strep A. Scarlet fever can be treated with antibiotics and should not be fatal but it’s important to get help quickly if you do notice any of the signs, especially on your child. Symptoms such as a high temperature, sore throat and swollen neck glands are some of the first signs of scarlet fever. 12-48 hours later you will begin to see a rash appear. This tends to look like small, raised bumps and will begin on the chest and spread from there.

What about iGAS?

The most dangerous type of Strep A is iGAS, which is spread through sores or open wounds that allow Strep A bacteria to get directly into the tissue. Someone who has a compromised immune system or who has recently had a viral illness and has breaches in their respiratory tract could also be at risk. This can result in some of the most severe forms of Strep A infection, including necrotising fasciitis, necrotising pneumonia and Streptococcal Toxic Shock Syndrome.

Although cases are rising in children in the UK, according to the government there is no evidence of a new, dangerous strain. The increase in cases is thought to be attributable to an increase in social mixing this year, compared to previous years, and increases in other respiratory viruses. Nevertheless, if you are concerned for yourself or your child it’s important to seek help quickly.