We’ve all heard of Strep Throat. It’s a common childhood ailment that keeps primary care doctors busy. But what is Strep Throat, and why does it need immediate antibiotic treatment when most other sore throats can be self-treated with rest and warm fluids?
“Strep” is the nickname for a certain type of streptococcal bacteria. While not all strep is dramatically dangerous to people, the dreaded Group A can cause serious illness by destroying cells in your respiratory tract and leading to disabling pain and swelling. If left untreated, the bacteria can make their way into your bloodstream — this is what the very deadly condition called Sepsis is.
The human immune system is pretty effective at mounting attacks against invading bacteria and successfully curing infections without the help of antibiotics! Thus, prescription treatment for many throat infections is not needed, and actually should be avoided as you’re just as likely to experience negative effects from the drugs as you are to be helped by them!
But antibiotic treatment is always recommended for sore throats caused by streptococcal bacteria. Why, you might ask? Yes, they are painfully destructive and quite contagious, but that is not the reason. The problem is their effect on the immune system. Remember, most infections prompt your immune system to create powerful proteins, called antibodies that then help destroy the invaders! But strep is a different story. A Strep infection can cause your body to create powerful antibodies that destroy NOT the Strep bacteria, but your own tissues!
The most famous streptococcal infections is rheumatic fever, in which the antibodies triggered by the Strep infection attack the heart. Also, antibodies that destroy the kidneys can arise; this condition is called acute glomerulonephritis and used to be a common cause of kidney failure in young people. And, the famous scarlet fever is caused by “clumps” of these troublesome antibodies clogging the tiny blood vessels (capillaries) in the skin. Until antibiotics, most notably penicillin, were developed to effectively kill the bacteria (and thus stop antibody production), Strep infections were a regrettably frequent cause of death in children and young adults.
So for doctors, testing for Strep is usually the “fork in the road” for deciding how to best treat sore throat. Not strep? You may be better off letting your own body fight it off. But if it is Strep, you’ll be prescribed antibiotics. Use them as directed, because they may be saving your life!