What is Strep A and its symptoms? Seventh child dies in the UK

A 12-year-old boy in London has become the seventh child in the UK to die after contracting Strep A, amid warnings from medics about the NHS’s ability to cope with the increased rates of the disease.

On Sunday (December 5), cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi urged parents to be vigilant for signs of streptococcus A, even though most cases are mild.

“It is really important to be vigilant because, in the very rare circumstance that it becomes serious, then it needs urgent treatment,” he told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge.

It was reported on Saturday that a 12-year-old Year Eight pupil from a school in Lewisham had died after developing the infection, which takes the total number of deaths to seven.

Medical professionals have raised concerns about how frontline NHS services will cope with a likely influx of concerned parents and the difficulties of separating serious cases from minor symptoms.

Neena Modi, professor of neonatal medicine at Imperial College London, told the Guardian that both GP services and A&E were “on their knees”.

“The last thing we want is for A&E departments to be flooded with a new influx of worried parents,” she said.

But what is Strep A, how do you avoid getting it, and how do you treat it if you or your child become unwell?

Dr Steve Iley, medical director at Bupa UK, reveals what you need to know.

What is Strep A?

Strep A is also known as scarlet fever, an infectious bacterial illness, which usually involves a sore throat, fever, and rash. It most commonly follows on from a throat infection caused by a type of bacteria called Streptococcus A.

Who are the high-risk groups?

Scarlet fever mainly affects children under the age of 10 and in particular those between two and eight. However, it can affect people of all ages.

It usually spreads from one infected individual to others through tiny droplets in the air. This means the infection can spread easily in spaces where children are in close contact, like classrooms and nurseries.

What are the symptoms of Strep A?

Initial symptoms of scarlet fever usually start between one and four days after infection. A sore throat, fever, headaches, chills, and feeling sick are all symptoms.

Then, about 12 to 48 hours after the fever starts, a skin rash will appear, first on the neck and then on the body. The rash will make the skin feel rough like sandpaper and will consist of pimples that are small, raised, and reddish in colour.

Another symptom of scarlet fever is “strawberry tongue”. This is when the tongue is at first white with red inflamed parts (white strawberry tongue). Then, after four to five days, it turns red and shiny (red strawberry tongue).

The bacterial infection can be transmitted through close contact, such as kissing or touching.

“Group A streptococcal infections usually result in mild illness, and information has been shared with parents and staff about the signs and symptoms,” said Dr Yimmy Chow, health protection consultant at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

He added: “These include a sore throat, fever, and minor skin infections and can be treated with a full course of antibiotics from the GP. In rare incidences, it can be a severe illness and 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 to see a doctor for Strep A

If you have a young child who is poorly, be vigilant and look out for any of the above symptoms that could be linked to scarlet fever. If you think your child may have scarlet fever, contact your GP immediately for advice.

If you or your child has scarlet fever, get plenty of rest and avoid going into work, school, or nursery for a couple of days after you or your child start taking antibiotics. It usually takes a week to make a full recovery if you get treatment.

How is Strep A treated?

GPs usually prescribe antibiotics for adults and children. Make sure you complete the full course.

You can also take pain-relief medicines, like paracetamol and ibuprofen alongside these, to help ease symptoms but make sure you read the instructions and ask the pharmacist or your GP before giving them to your children.

How dangerous is Strep A?

Scarlet fever can usually be treated quickly with antibiotics but it can be fatal. However, this is extremely rare.

What can you do to avoid getting Strep A?

Make sure your children wash their hands regularly and encourage good hygiene at all times. This includes washing their hands in the morning and at the end of the day, after going to the toilet, and before and after eating food. Washing hands is an effective way to get rid of bacteria.

“Prompt treatment of scarlet fever with antibiotics is recommended to reduce risk of possible complications and limit onward transmission,” says Gov.UK.

“Renewed messaging to encourage contact with GP practices for patients with specific symptoms (for example, rash), should be considered.

“GPs and other frontline clinical staff are reminded of the increased risk of invasive disease among household contacts of scarlet-fever cases.”