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Strep A is on the rise across the UK – here are the signs to look out for

At least 24 children have died from the infection since September

Chiara Wilkinson
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Chiara Wilkinson
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There has been a rise in cases of Strep A in recent weeks, a bacterial infection that has caused the deaths of at least 24 children in the UK since September.

Most cases are mild, but health officials are warning parents to be aware of Strep A’s symptoms – because in the rare instance that it becomes serious, the infection requires urgent treatment. The rise in cases has also led to a shortage of drugs, and pharmacists now have the ability to supply an alternative form of penicillin without the patient having to go back to a GP if the prescribed one is out of stock.

With rates on the rise, here’s everything you need to know. 

What is Strep A?

Strep A, full name streptococcus A, is a kind of bacteria which is sometimes found in the throat or on the skin. Most cases are mild and some people can even carry it without knowing. However, it is highly contagious and can spread to others who may fall ill, and in rare instances it can become serious.

The most serious form of Strep A is called iGAS. In its most recent release, the UK Health Security Agency said: ‘Elevations in rates of iGAS infection in children in this early part of this season have resulted in an increased number of deaths over a relatively short period.’

How can you catch Strep A?

The bacteria can be passed through close contact, as well as sneezes and coughs. 

Why is Strep A spreading?  

Since Covid restrictions have eased in the UK and we’re entering the winter months, there are new opportunities for infections to spread in general. Less mask wearing and social distancing this winter may help to cause outbreaks to happen in places like schools and care homes. 

What are the symptoms of Strep A?

Symptoms are usually mild. Signs include skin infections and a sore throat, both of which can usually be treated with antibiotics. There is no vaccine for Strep A. 

In more serious cases, Strep A can lead to scarlet fever, which causes a rash with a rough sandpaper-like texture, and flu-like symptoms including swollen neck glands and a high temperature. 

Scarlet fever often affects young children, and antibiotics will be required to treat it. 

When does Strep A become dangerous?

In very rare cases, Strep A will cause iGAS, an invasive group A streptococcal infection, and you should seek medical help as soon as possible. 

This is when the bacteria gets through the body’s immune defence system. In the worst cases, this can be deadly. Signs to look out for include a fever (a temperature above 38C) and severe aching muscles. 

The UK Health Security Agency advises: ‘Anyone with high fever, severe muscle aches, pain in one area of the body and unexplained vomiting or diarrhoea should call NHS 111 and seek medical help immediately.’

When should you seek medical help? 

You should speak with your doctor if you believe your child has Strep A symptoms, and inform them if you’ve been in contact with a case.

The UK government website recommends you should contact NHS 111 or your GP if:

  • your child is getting worse
  • your child is feeding or eating much less than normal
  • your child has had a dry nappy for 12 hours or more or shows other signs of dehydration
  • your baby is under three months and has a temperature of 38C, or is older than three months and has a temperature of 39C or higher
  • your baby feels hotter than usual when you touch their back or chest, or feels sweaty
  • your child is very tired or irritable

Call 999 or go to A&E if:

  • your child is having difficulty breathing – you may notice grunting noises or their tummy sucking under their ribs
  • there are pauses when your child breathes
  • your child’s skin, tongue or lips are blue
  • your child is floppy and will not wake up or stay awake

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