If you're feeling fine one moment -- and then suddenly your throat is killing you, you're running a high fever, and all your energy has vanished in a haze of illness -- you may have strep throat.
"Strep," in this case, stands for Streptococcus pyogenes, a common strain of bacteria that can live in your throat and nose for months without causing any harm. Tests show that about 20% of healthy people during the winter have the strep "bug" living uneventfully in their mouths or throats, without causing any symptoms. These carriers, who have no symptoms, do not spread strep germs and do not need to be tested or treated for strep.
Once in awhile, though, these bugs can turn on you. Maybe you've been under too much stress, or your immune system has been overtaxed from fighting a virus such as a common cold or the flu. Or perhaps you've picked up a bug from an infected person. Whatever the reason, the normally quiet strep organisms can suddenly start spewing out toxins and inflammatory substances to bring on a sore throat and other symptoms.
Although strep throat feels awful, it can be cured easily these days with antibiotics such as penicillin, erythromycin, or clindamycin. In fact, one of the biggest problems with strep is getting people to seek treatment. Because a fever and sore throat are also symptoms of colds and the flu, strep throat is often mistaken for these ailments.
But colds and flu normally take several days to develop, they are caused by viruses and usually accompanied by a cough, stuffy or runny nose, and headache, and they go away on their own within five to seven days. Strep throat, by contrast, usually arrives in a hurry, without any other cold or flu symptoms and should be treated with antibiotics to prevent more serious disease and stop its spread to others.
Strep throat should not be taken lightly. Untreated, it can continue to spread to others. It’s also possible for strep throat bacteria to spread to other tissues, causing an abscess or more-serious infection. Rarely, untreated strep throat can lead to heart damage from rheumatic fever. Untreated, strep throat can quickly lead to a more severe illness such as rheumatic fever (a serious heart condition) or acute nephritis (which can damage your kidneys) -- and both of these can be fatal.
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