Category: Childhood Infections

Does Your Child Need an RSV Test?

A lot has changed since this Kansas City RSV outbreak back in 2013.
A lot has changed since this Kansas City RSV outbreak back in 2013.

Your toddler has a cough and runny nose and there is a notice that RSV is going around at daycare…

Do you need to rush to your pediatrician?

Does your child need an RSV test?

Like many things, it depends on who you ask.

For example, the folks at your child’s daycare might push for a visit and an RSV test, thinking it will help them keep the virus from spreading to other kids.

It won’t.

Does Your Child Need an RSV Test?

If an RSV test is available, why not do it?

“Our study showed that a simple nasal swab, while less painful for infants than NPA, failed to detect about one third of cases that were RSV positive by nasopharyngeal aspirate.”

Macfarlane et al on RSV testing in bronchiolitis: which nasal sampling method is best?

For one thing, the test isn’t that accurate, especially when done with a nasal swab, the most commonly used method. And while less invasive than a nasopharyngeal aspirate, if done correctly, sticking a nasal swab up your child’s nose, rotating it around a few times, and then getting a sample isn’t exactly something kids enjoy.

Mostly though, since there is no treatment for RSV, what are you going to do with those test results, whether or not they are positive?

Remember, RSV is a very common respiratory virus that can cause a cold, bronchiolitis, or pneumonia. But testing positive for RSV doesn’t mean that your child has bronchiolitis or pneumonia. Those are typically diagnosed clinically, based on the signs and symptoms that your child has, such as wheezing and trouble breathing.

Similarly, testing negative for RSV doesn’t mean that your child doesn’t have bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

“Clinicians should diagnose bronchiolitis and assess disease severity on the basis of history and physical exam.

When clinicians diagnose bronchiolitis on the basis of history and physical examination, radiographic or laboratory studies should not be obtained routinely.”

AAP on the Clinical Practice Guideline: The Diagnosis, Management, and Prevention of Bronchiolitis

Is there ever a role for RSV testing?

RSV testing might be a good idea when an infant has apnea or other uncommon symptoms.

And if a child is getting monthly Synagis injections and has a suspected case of RSV, it is a good idea to confirm that they actually have RSV.

Why?

If they really do, then you can stop getting Synagis injections, as they are unlikely to get RSV again in the same season.

“In the event an infant receiving monthly prophylaxis is hospitalized with bronchiolitis, testing should performed to determine if RSV is the etiologic agent. If a breakthrough RSV infection is determined to be present based on antigen detection or other assay, monthly palivizumab prophylaxis should be discontinued because of the very low likelihood of a second RSV infection in the same year. Apart from this setting, routine virologic testing is not recommended.”

AAP on the Clinical Practice Guideline: The Diagnosis, Management, and Prevention of Bronchiolitis

That’s pretty clear.

The American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines say that routine RSV testing is not recommended.

Need another good reason to avoid routine RSV testing?

Do you know how long kids with RSV shed the virus or can test positive after having an RSV infection?

“People infected with RSV are usually contagious for 3 to 8 days. However, some infants, and people with weakened immune systems, can continue to spread the virus even after they stop showing symptoms, for as long as 4 weeks.”

CDC on RSV Transmission

Apparently, it is a long time, which means that your child might have a new respiratory infection, but still test positive for RSV because they had it a month ago.

You might actually be “diagnosing” an old infection and not the virus that is causing your child’s current symptoms.

Do you still want an RSV test anyway? Talk to your pediatrician.

Did someone order an RSV test, but you are now wondering if it was necessary? Talk to your pediatrician.

Remember that an RSV test won’t change your child’s treatment (breathing treatments and steroids are no longer routinely recommended when infants have RSV), won’t help predict how sick your child might get, and won’t tell you if your child can return to daycare.

What To Know About RSV Tests

You likely won’t be able to avoid RSV season, especially if your kids are in daycare, but you can avoid RSV testing season.

More on RSV Tests

What to Know About Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease

Have your kids ever had a coxsackievirus A16 infection?

Don’t think so?

What about Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease (HFMD)?

Symptoms of  Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease

Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease is a very common childhood disease that most of us end up getting at some point, typically before we are about five years old. At least you hope you do, because you don’t want to get it as an adult…

Would you recognize these symptoms of HFMD?
Would you recognize these symptoms of HFMD? Photo courtesy Medicina Oral S.L.

Most people are familiar with the classic symptoms of HFMD, which can include:

  • a few days of fever, often up to about 102 degrees F
  • red spots that can turn into blisters on the child’s palms (hand) and soles (foot), but often also on their knees, elbows, and buttocks
  • sores or ulcers in a child’s mouth which are often painful, causing mouth pain or a sore throat and excessive drooling
  • a reduced appetite, which can sometimes lead to dehydration

Symptoms which can last up to 7 to 10 days.

Although that’s the end of it for most kids, a few weeks after the other symptoms have gone away, some kids will have peeling of the skin on the child’s fingers and toes. They might even lose their fingernails and toenails (nail shedding). This is only temporary though, and new nails should quickly grow back.

To confuse matters though, like other viral infections, not all kids have classic symptoms when they get HFMD. Some don’t have a fever, while others don’t have the rash on their hands and feet, which can make it easy to confuse with other viral infections that cause mouth ulcers, like herpangina.

Some kids don’t have any symptoms at all, but surprisingly, they can still be contagious.

Facts About Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease

HFMD is caused by the coxsackievirus A16 virus and a few other enteroviruses, including enterovirus 71 and coxsackievirus A6. Because more than one virus can cause HFMD, it is possible to get it more than once.

Other things to know about HFMD include that:

  • it is very contagious, especially if you have close contact with nose and throat secretions, fluid from blisters, and feces of someone infected with HFMD, especially during their first week of illness
  • the incubation period for HFMD, the time when you were exposed to someone to when you develop symptoms, is about 3 to 7 days
  • people with HFMD disease can continue to be contagious for days or weeks after their symptoms have stopped, although this isn’t a reason to keep them out of school or daycare. In fact, as long as they don’t have fever and feel well, kids with HFMD can likely go to daycare or school.
  • there is no specific treatment for HFMD, except symptomatic care, including pain relief, fever reducers if necessary, and extra fluids
  • unlike other viruses which are common in the winter, HFMD season is during the spring, summer, and fall
  • complications of HFMD disease are rare, but can include viral meningitis, encephalitis, and a polio-like paralysis
  • HFMD is not the same as foot-and-mouth or hoof-and-mouth disease that affects animals
  • there is currently no vaccine to prevent you from getting HFMD, although cross reactivity between polio vaccines and enterovirus 71 might lead to milder symptoms if you are vaccinated and an EV-71 vaccine is approved in China

Most importantly, to avoid getting HFMD, wash your hands after changing your child’s diaper, teach them to cover their coughs and sneezes, and don’t share cups or other personal items.

Although many of us had HFMD when we were kids, remember that there are multiple viruses that can cause it. When outbreaks occur and we see more cases in adults, it is likely because it isn’t being caused not by coxsackievirus A16, but by a less commonly seen enterovirus that we aren’t immune to, like coxsackievirus A6.

More on Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease

What is a Lyme-Literate Doctor?

By most definitions, a person who is literate is well educated.

So a “Lyme literate” doctor is good thing, right?

What is a Lyme-Literate Doctor?

That you can get Lyme disease after a tick bite is well known by most folks, even if they don’t live in an area with a lot of confirmed cases.

The majority of Lyme disease cases, about 95% of confirmed cases, are reported in just 14 states.
The majority of Lyme disease cases, about 95% of confirmed cases, are reported in just 14 states.

Early symptoms are also well-known, including flu-like symptoms ( fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches), swollen lymph nodes, and the classic erythma migrans rash.

Later symptoms of Lyme disease, when it isn’t treated right away, can include more rashes, arthritis, heart palpitations or an irregular heart beat, facial palsy, severe headaches and neck stiffness, nerve pain, and problems with short-term memory.

Fortunately, that there are many antibiotic regimens that can effectively treat Lyme disease, including amoxicillin, isn’t a huge secret.

So do you need to see a “Lyme literate” doctor to get diagnosed and treated if you think you have Lyme disease?

That’s actually the last thing you want to do.

The first thing you want to understand is that the term “Lyme literate” doctors is actually kind of ironic. These are not literate doctors, at least not in the sense that they are educated and practice evidence based medicine.

Quest Diagnostics says that they have detected Lyme in all 50 states, even Arizona and Colorado, even though they are among the 8 states that don't have any of the Ixodes ticks that transmit Lyme... Are those really the states "where people are being infected?"
Quest Diagnostics says that they have detected Lyme in all 50 states, even Arizona and Colorado, even though they are among the eight states that don’t have any of the Ixodes ticks that transmit Lyme… Are those really the states “where people are being infected?”

They are often alternative medicine providers who think that you can get Lyme disease anywhere, even if you don’t live in and haven’t traveled to an area with ticks capable of transmitting Lyme disease.

Many also diagnose folks with many different kinds of non-specific symptoms as having Lyme disease, especially because they misuse tests for Lyme disease as screening tests, or simply misinterpret the results. Tests that often lead to false positive results and folks getting misdiagnosed with chronic Lyme disease.

“Once serum antibodies to B. burgdorferi do develop, both IgG and IgM may persist for many years despite adequate treatment and clinical cure of the illness”

Murray et al. on Lyme Disease

They also often think that it is likely that if you have Lyme disease, then you are also likely to have many coinfections, including Bartonella or Mycoplasma. And that the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria can hide in our bodies, creating persistent infections, even passing through breastmilk or causing congenital Lyme disease.

“You can access a variety of online resources and directories to locate doctors who are specifically trained in identifying and treating tick-borne illnesses. This is particularly important if you suspect that you may have Lyme disease since it is the most frequently misdiagnosed of all tick-borne diseases. Finding a Lyme-literate medical doctor (LLMD)—or a physician who is familiar with the vast range of symptoms that may indicate infection at various stages of the disease, as well as potential coinfections and other complexities—can help ensure that you get the right treatment, right away.”

IGeneX Inc. on How to Find Doctors Who Can Help with Your Tick-Borne Disease

Why does IGeneX Inc. want to help you find a Lyme-literate doctor? Maybe because IGeneX Inc. sells the tests that many Lyme-literate doctors use to diagnose Lyme disease and chronic Lyme disease! Tests that most other doctors don’t recommend doing.

“The controversy is a nice model for many similar controversies: the science doesn’t support the existence of the disease, but a dedicated group of activists, including some scientists and physicians, feel their extensive experiences more than make up for lack of data. What some of us have problems with is not only the lack of data, but also the willingness of people who believe in this to go about trying to prove it in unconventional ways, for example, relying on lab tests that are not validated.”

Lyme disease—who is credible?

Still, not everyone knows about Lyme disease.

And if you don’t mention a history of a tick bite, didn’t notice a tick bite (Lyme ticks are very small), or don’t have the classic erythema migrans rash, then diagnosis might be delayed.

Tips from Lyme Disease Country

So what should you know to be literate about Lyme disease and be prepared if a tick ever bites your child?

  • you can prevent Lyme disease by avoiding tick bites and removing ticks as quickly as possible after they bite you, which is why it is important to do use insect repellent and do regular tick checks after spending time outdoors, especially if you were in wooded, overgrown areas or places with tall grass or unmarked trails.
  • just because you were bitten by a blacklegged tick, it doesn’t mean that you will develop Lyme disease. In general, only 2% of tick bites result in Lyme disease.
  • in most cases, ticks don’t need to be tested for Lyme disease, after all, even if the tick tested positive, it doesn’t mean that it transmitted the Lyme bacteria during a bite.
  • Lyme disease isn’t the only tick-borne disease that we are concerned about, so do tick checks even if you aren’t in a Lyme endemic area.
  • except in very specific cases in high risk areas, people shouldn’t usually be treated with antibiotics after a tick bite, just in case they might develop symptoms of Lyme disease
  • according to the American Lyme Disease Foundation, eight states, including Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming, don’t have the Ixodes ticks that transmit Lyme disease

And know that in addition to your pediatrician, a pediatric rheumatologist or pediatric infectious disease specialist can help you if you think your child has Lyme disease. Unfortunately, late symptoms of untreated Lyme disease can be serious. That makes early diagnosis and the return of a Lyme disease vaccine important.

What about Lyme-literate doctors who say that they specialize in caring for patients with Lyme disease? Understand that the term “Lyme-literate” is simply a dog whistle for alternative medicine providers and websites who are likely to offer non-evidence based care.

More on Lyme Disease and Lyme-Literate Doctors

It’s Not Always the Flu When You Get Sick During Cold and Flu Season

We hear a lot about flu season.

It typically starts in late fall, peaks in mid-to-late winter, and can continue through early spring.

Cold and Flu Season Viruses

It’s important to understand that a lot more is going on, and going around, during flu season than just the flu.

That’s why it is likely more appropriate to think of flu season as just a part of the overall cold and flu season that we see during the late fall to early spring.

During cold and flu season, in addition to the multiple strains of the flu, we see diseases caused by:

  • respiratory adenovirus – can cause bronchitis, colds, croup, viral pneumonia, pink eye, and diarrhea
  • Human metapneumovirus (HMPV) – can cause bronchiolitis, colds, and viral pneumonia
  • Human parainfluenza viruses (HPIVs) – can cause bronchiolitis, bronchitis, colds, croup, or viral pneumonia
  • rhinovirus – the classic common cold
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) – can cause wheezing and bronchiolitis in younger children, but colds in older kids and adults
  • seasonal coronavirus – can cause colds, bronchitis, and viral pneumonia
  • norovirus – diarrhea and vomiting
  • rotavirus – diarrhea and vomiting, was much more common in the pre-vaccine era

That there are so many different respiratory viruses that can cause bronchiolitis, colds, croup, and flu-like illnesses helps explain why some kids get sick so many times during cold and flu season.

It also helps explain why some folks think they might have gotten the flu despite having been vaccinated, especially in a year when the flu vaccine is very effective.

Is It a Cold or the Flu?

So how do you know if you have the flu or one of these flu viruses during cold and flu season?

Signs and symptoms of the flu vs a cold.
Signs and symptoms of the flu vs a cold.

While the symptoms can be similar, flu symptoms are usually more severe and come on more suddenly.

Can’t you just get a flu test?

While rapid flu tests are fast and easy to do, they are likely not as accurate as you think.

“This variation in ability to detect viruses can result in some people who are infected with the flu having a negative rapid test result. (This situation is called a false negative test result.) Despite a negative rapid test result, your health care provider may diagnose you with flu based on your symptoms and their clinical judgment.”

CDC on Diagnosing Flu

If your pediatrician is going to diagnose your child with the flu because of their symptoms, even if they have a negative flu test, then why do the test?

Rapid flu tests are usually invalid if they are positive for A and B, but many folks are told that they have both.
Rapid flu tests are usually invalid if they are positive for A and B, but many folks are told that they have both flu virus strains.

Can you test for all of the other viruses that are going around during cold and flu season?

Tests can be done to detect most cold and flu viruses.
Tests can be done to detect most cold and flu viruses.

Sure.

The real question is should you.

Like the rapid flu test, many pediatricians can do an RSV test in their office. But like many other viruses, there is no treatment for RSV and the American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends against routine RSV testing. Whether your child’s test is positive or negative, it is not going to change how he or she is treated.

And the other viruses? Not surprisingly, there are respiratory panels that can test for most or all of these viruses. They also usually include flu and RSV.

The problem with these tests is cost. They are not inexpensive, and again, in most cases, the results aren’t going to change how your pediatrician treats your child.

And they all involve sticking a nasal swab far up your child’s nose…

What About Strep?

While strep throat can occur year round, it does seem to be more common in the winter and spring.

And while you can certainly have two different infections at the same time, such as strep throat and the flu, it is important to remember that the rate of strep throat carriers is fairly high. These are kids who regularly test positive for strep, even though they don’t have an active group A strep infection.

During cold and flu season, if kids routinely get a “strep/flu” combo test, it is possible, or even likely, that many of the positive strep tests are simply catching these carriers.

Remember that a cough, runny nose, hoarse voice, and pink eye are not typical symptoms of strep throat and are more commonly caused by cold viruses. Adenovirus is especially notorious for causing a sore throat, fever, pink eye, runny nose, with swollen lymph nodes = pharyngoconjunctival fever.

Kids who are likely to have strep throat usually have a sore throat, with red and swollen tonsils, and may have swollen lymph nodes, fever, stomach pain, and vomiting, but won’t have typical cold symptoms.

Why does it matter?

Viral causes of a sore throat don’t need antibiotics, while a true strep infection does.

And remember that none of the other cold and flu viruses need antibiotics either, unless your child gets worse and develops a secondary bacterial infection.

What to Know About Cold and Flu Season Viruses

Flu isn’t the only virus that is going around during cold and flu season. Many others can cause flu-like illnesses, croup, bronchiolitis, or just a cold.

More on Cold and Flu Season Viruses

How Long Are You Contagious When You Have the Flu?

Do your kids have the flu?

When their kids have the flu, one of the first questions most parents have, after all of the ones about how they can get them better as quickly as possible, is how long will they be contagious?

How Long Is the Flu Contagious?

Technically, when you have the flu, you are contagious for about a week after becoming sick.

And you become sick about one to four days after being exposed to someone else with the flu – that’s the incubation period.

“Most experts believe that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, eyes or possibly their nose.”

CDC on Information for Schools

That’s why the flu spreads so easily and it is hard to control flu outbreaks and epidemics once they begin.

Most school closures are not to prevent the spread of the flu and clean the school, but simply because so many kids and staff are already out sick.
Most school closures are not to prevent the spread of the flu and clean the school, but simply because so many kids and staff are already out sick.

Another reason it spreads so easily is that most people are contagious the day before they even begin to develop flu symptoms!

And again, they then remain contagious for another five to seven days.

When Can You Return to School with the Flu?

Does that mean kids with the flu have to stay home for at least seven days?

Not usually, unless they have a fever for that long, or severe flu symptoms, which is definitely a possibility for some kids with the flu.

“Those who get flu-like symptoms at school should go home and stay home until at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever or signs of a fever without the use of fever-reducing medicine.”

CDC on Information for Schools

In general, as with many other childhood illnesses, you can return to school or daycare once your child is feeling better and is fever free for at least 24 hours.

Keep in mind that even if they don’t have a fever, if your child still isn’t feeling well and isn’t going to be able to participate in typical activities, then they should probably still stay home.

But Are They Still Contagious?

Many childhood diseases have contagious periods that are far longer than most folks imagine. That’s because we continue to shed viral particles even as we are getting better, and sometimes, even once we no longer have symptoms.

Teach your kids proper cough etiquette to help keep cold and flu germs from spreading.
Teach your kids proper cough etiquette to help keep cold and flu germs from spreading.

For example, some infants with rotavirus are contagious for up to 10 days and some with RSV are contagious for as long as 4 weeks!

Like the child with flu that doesn’t have a fever, that doesn’t mean that these kids have to stay out of school or daycare for that whole time. But since they are still contagious, it does raise the issue of what to do about non-essential activities.

Should you keep going to playdates after your child had the flu? How about the daycare at church or the gym?

In general, you should probably avoid non-essential activities while your kids are still recovering from an illness, even if they feel better, because they are likely still contagious.

Most parents have the expectation that their own kids won’t be exposed to someone who is sick in these settings.

So you probably don’t want to bring your sick kid to a playdate or birthday party, etc., even if he is already back in school or daycare.

And whether they have a cold or the flu or another illness, teach your kids to decrease their chances of getting sick by washing their hands properly, not sharing drinks (bring a water bottle to school), and properly covering their own coughs and sneezes. They should also learn to avoid putting things in the mouth (fingers or their pencil, etc.) or rubbing their eyes, as that helps germs that could have made their way onto their hands get into their body and make them sick.

What to Know About Staying Home When You Have the Flu

Although your child may be contagious with the flu for up to a week, your child only has to stay home from school or day care until they are feeling better and are fever free for at least 24 hours.

More About Staying Home When You Have the Flu

 

Incubation Periods of Childhood Diseases

The incubation period or latency period is the amount of time between being exposed to a contagious disease and when you begin developing symptoms.

This is not the same as the contagious period or the time during which your child can get others sick.

Incubation Period

Depending on the disease, the incubation period can be just a few hours or can last for several months. Knowing the incubation period for a disease can help you understand if your child is still at risk of getting sick or if he is in the clear — whether he is exposed to someone with strep throat, measles, or the flu.

“The incubation period is the time from exposure to the causative agent until the first symptoms develop and is characteristic for each disease agent.”

CDC

It can also help you figure out where and when your child got sick. For example, if your infant develops chickenpox, a vaccine-preventable disease, you can’t blame it on your cousin who doesn’t vaccinate her kids and who was visiting just three days ago. The incubation period for chickenpox is at least 10 to 21 days. So your child who is too young to be vaccinated likely caught chicken pox from someone he was exposed to a few weeks ago.

As we saw in recent outbreaks of Ebola and measles, a diseases incubation period can also help you figure out how long an exposed person needs to stay in quarantine. After all, if they don’t get sick once the incubation period is over, then they likely won’t get sick and can be released from quarantine.

Incubation Periods of Childhood Diseases

The incubation period for some common diseases includes:

  • Adenovirus – 2 to 14 days, leading to a sore throat, fever, and pink eye
  • vomiting after exposure to Bacillus cereus, a type of food poisoning – 30 minutes to 6 hours (short incubation period
  • Clostridium tetani (Tetanus) – 3 to 21 days
  • Chickenpox – 10 to 21 days
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections (Infectious Mononucleosis) – 30 to 50 days (long incubation period)
  • E. coli – 10 hours to 6 days (short incubation period)
  • E. coli O157:H7 – 1 to 8 days
  • Fifth disease – 4 to 21 days, with the classic ‘slapped cheek’ rash
  • Group A streptococcal (GAS) infection (strep throat) – 2 to 5 days
  • Group A streptococcal (GAS) infection (impetigo) – 7 to 10 days
  • Head lice (time for eggs to hatch) – 7 to 12 days
  • Herpes (cold sores) – 2 to 14 days
  • HIV – less than 1 year to over 15 years
  • Influenza (flu) – 1 to 4 days
  • Listeria monocytogenes (Listeriosis) – 1 day to 3 weeks, but can be as long as 2 months (long incubation period)
  • Measles – 7 to 18 days
  • Molluscum contagiosum – 2 weeks to 6 months (long incubation period)
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB) – 2 to 10 weeks (long incubation period)
  • Mycoplasma penumoniae (walking pneumonia) – 1 to 4 weeks
  • Norovirus ( the ‘cruise ship’ diarrhea virus) – 12 to 48 hours
  • Pinworms – 1 to 2 months
  • Rabies – 4 to 6 weeks, but can last years (very long incubation period)
  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) – 2 to 8 days
  • Rhinovirus (common cold) – 2 to 3 days, but may be up to 7 days
  • Roseola – about 9 to 10 days, leading to a few days of fever and then the classic rash once the fever breaks
  • Rotavirus – 1 to 3 days
  • gastrointestinal symptoms (diarrhea and vomiting) after exposure to Salmonella – 6 to 72 hours
  • Scabies – 4 to 6 weeks
  • Staphylococcus aureus – varies
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae (can cause pneumonia, meningitis, ear infections, and sinus infection, setc.) – 1 to 3 days
  • Whooping cough (pertussis) – 5 to 21 days

Knowing the incubation period of an illness isn’t always as helpful as it seems, though, as kids often have multiple exposures when kids around them are sick, especially if they are in school or daycare.

Conditions with long incubation periods can also fool you, as you might suspect a recent exposure, but it was really someone your child was around months ago.

More About Incubation Periods

Understanding Strep and Why Your Kids Keep Getting Strep Throat

Tonsillitis caused by group A streptococcus bacteria.
Tonsillitis caused by group A streptococcus bacteria. Photo courtesy of the CDC.

Does your child get strep throat so often that you are thinking about getting his tonsils out?

While it is not uncommon for kids to get strep throat a few times a year once they are in school, it is even more common to get viral sore throats.

Strep throat, which can be treated with antibiotics, is caused by the group A Streptococcus (GAS) bacteria. And while a fast or rapid test can help determine if your child has strep throat or a virus, false positive (the test is positive, but the strep bacteria isn’t really making your child sick) results can sometimes confuse the picture.

Understanding Strep Throat

Before you can begin to understand why your child might be getting strep throat over and over again, you first have to understand strep throat and the current guidelines for diagnosing and treating strep.

“Diagnostic studies for GAS pharyngitis are not indicated for children less than 3 years old because acute rheumatic fever is rare in children less than 3 years old and the incidence of streptococcal pharyngitis and the classic presentation of streptococcal pharyngitis are uncommon in this age group.”

Infectious Diseases Society of America Guidelines

Strep throat is most common in children and teens between the ages of 5 and 15 years. While it might be possible for younger and older folks to get strep, especially if someone else in the house is sick with strep throat, since they aren’t considered to be at risk for acute rheumatic fever, it isn’t typically necessary to diagnose or treat them. It may surprise you, but strep throat does go away on its own – the main reason it is treated is so you don’t later develop rheumatic fever.

“Testing for GAS pharyngitis usually is not recommended for children or adults with acute pharyngitis with clinical and epidemiological features that strongly suggest a viral etiology (eg, cough, rhinorrhea, hoarseness, and oral ulcers).”

Infectious Diseases Society of America Guidelines

The classic symptoms of strep throat can include the sudden onset of a sore throat, fever, red and swollen tonsils (tonsillitis), possibly with white patches (exudate) and small, red spots (petechiae) on the roof of the child’s mouth, and tender, swollen lymph glands in their neck.

Kids with strep throat might also have nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, a headache, and a rash (scarlet fever).

Kids with strep throat will not usually have a cough, runny nose, hoarse voice, mouth ulcers, or pink eye with their sore throat. Those are symptoms that suggest a virus is causing the sore throat and they should not usually be tested for strep. This helps to avoid an unnecessary antibiotic prescription if your child tests positive, but really has a virus.

So basically, try to avoid over-testing for strep. But if your child does have strep throat symptoms and has a positive test, get an antibiotic that will clear the strep bacteria and finish all of your child’s prescription.

Avoiding Strep and Other Infections

Can you avoid getting strep?

As with other infections, the best way to avoid strep throat is to teach your kids to:

  • wash their hands properly
  • avoid close contact with people that are sick (for strep, that means until they have been on their antibiotic for at least 24 hours)
  • avoid drinking out of other people’s cups or glasses
  • consider taking a water bottle to school instead of drinking out of the water fountains
  • not touch their eyes or put objects (fingers, pencils, clothing, etc.) in their mouth, as that helps germs get in their body
  • cover their coughs and sneezes to avoid getting others sick

Most importantly, don’t wait until someone is sick in your home or lots of kids are getting sick at school to encourage your kids to avoid getting sick. By then, it will likely be too late.

Is Your Child a Strep Carrier?

If your child continues to get strep, especially if their strep test is always positive, it is likely time to consider that they may be a strep carrier.

“We recommend that clinicians caring for patients with recurrent episodes of pharyngitis associated with laboratory evidence of GAS pharyngitis consider that they may be experiencing >1 episode of bona fide streptococcal pharyngitis at close intervals, but they should also be alert to the possibility that the patient may actually be a chronic pharyngeal GAS carrier who is experiencing repeated viral infections.”

Infectious Diseases Society of America Guidelines

What does it mean to be a strep carrier?

It simply means that the strep bacteria are living or ‘hanging out’ in the back of your child’s throat. While that sounds bad, these strep bacteria aren’t causing any problems. They aren’t making your child sick, causing any symptoms, and don’t even make your child contagious.

“…the recovery of GAS does not establish causality. The tests do not distinguish carriage of GAS in a child with pharyngitis attributable to another cause from an acute infection caused by GAS.”

“Group A Streptococci Among School-Aged Children: Clinical Characteristics and the Carrier State” Pediatrics. 2004 Nov;114(5):1212-9.

The big problem with being a strep carrier is that whenever you have a strep test, these strep carrier bacteria will make the test positive, even if they aren’t what is causing your child’s symptoms.

This is often why people get diagnosed with strep and flu or strep and mono at the same time.

If you still don’t understand strep carriers, consider that if you go to almost any school and test every child, up to 20 to 25% of the kids will test positive for strep, even though they aren’t sick and have no symptoms. They are likely just strep carriers.

“We recommend that GAS carriers do not ordinarily justify efforts to identify them nor do they generally require antimicrobial therapy because GAS carriers are unlikely to spread GAS pharyngitis to their close contacts and are at little or no risk for developing suppurative or nonsuppurative complications (eg, acute rheumatic fever).”

Infectious Diseases Society of America Guidelines

What kind of efforts are they talking about? We sometimes hear about doctors ordering antibody tests, doing rapid strep tests and cultures on kids after they finish their antibiotics, testing everyone who lives in the house, or even testing the family dog.

None of this is usually necessary.

One thing that can be helpful is that if your pediatrician thinks that your child is a strep carrier, then instead of the more typical penicillin or amoxil antibiotics, they might treat your child with a stronger antibiotic, like clindamycin. This can help ‘knock out’ the carrier bacteria.

And then learn to be much more selective about getting strep tests, avoiding them if your child has more classic viral symptoms, like a cough and runny nose.

In addition to the idea of being a chronic carrier, there are other theories about why kids get recurrent strep throat infections, including:

  • antibiotic resistance – although this is thought to be rare or non-existent when it comes to the GAS bacteria and penicillin, amoxicillin, and cephalosporins. There is some resistance between azithromycin and strep, which is why it should only be prescribed if your child is allergic to the other antibiotics that are used to treat strep throat.
  • noncompliance – not finishing your antibiotic or not taking it as prescribed
  • influence of other bacteria – there are theories that other bacteria may be inactivating penicillin or amoxicillin (so you need a stronger antibiotic) or even that other beneficial bacteria help to kill the GAS bacteria, but may be gone if your child is frequently on antibiotics
  • you are starting antibiotics too quickly – some people think that if you don’t wait a few days and let the body start to fight the strep infection on its own, then it is more likely to come back

Or if your child had true strep throat symptoms, got well quickly after being on an antibiotic, but then got strep (with classic strep symptoms) again quickly, it is possible that it is just a new infection.

“We do not recommend tonsillectomy solely to reduce the frequency of GAS pharyngitis.”

Infectious Diseases Society of America Guidelines

If it is happening over and over again, consider the possibility that your child is a strep carrier and teach him or her how to avoid getting sick as much as possible.

Why not just get your child’s tonsils out? The problem is that many studies have shown that while this might help for a year or so, after that, these kids start getting strep just as much as they did before. So unless your child also has sleep apnea or has had complications of strep infections, like a peritonsillar abscess, you probably shouldn’t rush into a tonsillectomy.

What To Know About Recurrent Strep Throat Infections

Some other fast facts to know include that:

  • having tonsillitis does not automatically mean that your child has strep. Remember that viruses are an even more common cause of sore throats.
  • you can’t tell if someone has strep just by looking at their tonsils. Even having pus (white stuff) on their tonsils doesn’t automatically mean strep. Viruses can do that too. That’s why a rapid strep test, with a backup culture for negative tests, is important to make the diagnosis.
  • throwing out your child’s tooth brush every time they have strep isn’t necessary, after all, you don’t do that after they have other infections, do you? Instead, encourage your kids to routinely rinse their toothbrush after each use and replace it every 3 to 4 months.

Hopefully you have a better understanding of strep throat now.

Sore throat infections, including strep throat, are common, but remember to look for other answers besides just getting your child’s tonsils out if they get strep over and over.

More Information About Strep Throat