Health & Science

CDC urges parents to learn the signs of Invasive Strep A

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued an alert about a recent increase in pediatric invasive group A streptococcal infections—more commonly known as invasive strep A, a highly contagious respiratory infection. The public notice was issued following a spike in cases at a hospital in Colorado. Tragically, at least two children in the United States have died from invasive strep A, as well as at least 15 kids in the UK, where there is a particularly widespread outbreak of the infection. 

What is invasive strep A?

Group A streptococcus is a type of bacteria that can cause a variety of different illnesses, like strep throat and scarlet fever. “Invasive” strep A refers to when the bacteria spread to parts of the body that they don’t reach during a typical strep infection, like the bloodstream. An invasive strep case can cause severe and even fatal illness. The CDC recommends seeking immediate treatment with antibiotics for such cases.

Strep A is generally spread through contact with airborne droplets from an infected person sneezing, coughing, or talking. The infection tends to be seasonal, like the flu—and typically peaks between December and April. Most infections tend to be found in children between five and 15 years old.

What should parents look out for?

This rise in invasive Strep A cases is unfolding at the same time as a so-called “tripledemic” of respiratory infections has been sweeping across the country, including RSV, the flu, and COVID-19. People who have recently had a viral infection like one of these respiratory illnesses or chickenpox are more likely to become infected with strep, so it’s important for parents to remain vigilant after any recent illnesses in the home.

While parents are already on the lookout for other signs of common respiratory illnesses, the CDC is urging families and community members to learn the signs of invasive strep A as well. Some common symptoms of strep A include—

  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Bumps, a rash, or painful red patches on the skin

Parents and caregivers should seek emergency care immediately if their child is experiencing a high fever along with labored breathing, or if they have any difficulty coordinating swallowing with breathing.

When strep A becomes invasive, it can lead to additional infections or illnesses—some of which can be fatal. While these conditions are rare, their symptoms can get worse very quickly, so it’s important for parents to learn the signs of invasive strep A and its associated illnesses. Some signs that a strep A infection is invasive include—

  • A noticeable change in mental state. You may have a harder time than usual getting and holding their attention, or they may respond to you in atypical ways;
  • A painful, red, warm, or swollen area of skin that is spreading quickly can indicate a condition called necrotizing fasciitis which requires urgent medical attention. More advanced signs of this illness include ulcers, blisters, or black spots on the skin, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, or diarrhea;
  • Fever, chills, muscle aches, and vomiting can indicate streptococcal toxic shock syndrome. More advanced signs of this illness include rapid heart rate and breathing, and yellowing eyes. 

Other conditions that can stem from an invasive strep A infection include pneumonia and cellulitis, a bacterial skin infection. If you think your child may be showing signs of one or more of the illnesses associated with invasive strep A, you should seek medical care immediately.

How can parents protect their kids from invasive strep A?

The CDC recommends double-checking that the whole family’s vaccines are up-to-date—particularly the annual flu shot and the chickenpox vaccine. Getting these common infections can actually increase the risk of getting invasive strep A. It’s not too late in the season to schedule a flu shot if your family hasn’t yet gotten them this year.

In addition to making sure your family’s vaccines are up-to-date, the CDC also recommends that families step up their hand-washing and sanitation routines while these illnesses are circulating in the population. Wash hands for at least 20 seconds after eating, coughing, or sneezing, and keep some hand sanitizer handy for when washing hands isn’t possible. It can also be helpful to teach young kids to cough and sneeze into their sleeve or inner elbow when they don’t have a tissue on hand.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.