I didn’t get strep throat until I was in my late 20s and had two kids. I assumed this was because of my superhuman immune system. It was something like what Wolverine had in the X-Men, only I didn’t have claws, anger issues, and sex appeal.
However, it turns out I’d just been good about washing my hands and not allowing strangers to actually cough in my mouth. Having children changed all that.
My son, Tristan, was two and he came down with strep throat. Then, during the heat of the infection, he tried to actually put his mouth inside my mouth (I wish I was exaggerating) and — bam! –I suddenly understood why strep throat sucked so badly. Then, for the next several years, Tristan came down with strep every few months. I was still in college at the time, had horrible insurance, and it all sucked on all levels of everything. Mentally, emotionally, financially, as you can imagine.
Around 2010, when my son was three, almost four, I asked the doctor why Tristan was getting strep throat so often. He just shrugged and said, “Some kids do that.” Not exactly the answer I was looking for, but turns out, I wasn’t the only one asking the question. A recent study published in Science Translational Medicine was authored by a group of doctors trying to figure out exactly why some kids get strep throat over and over, and some don’t.
For those of you who may have never had the pleasure, or you’ve never done more than just nod at the doctor and accept your antibiotics each time you were diagnosed (don’t feel bad, I did the same thing before writing this essay), here is a quick rundown of what strep throat actually is. According to Popular Science, “Roughly 600 million people a year worldwide get infected with group A Streptococcus, or Streptococcus pyogenes, which is a bacterium that causes your tonsils to swell up, often accompanied by a fever.”
So this isn’t a virus, it’s a bacteria. And it can get really dangerous if untreated, so if you or your child might have strep throat, you need to visit a doctor. Antibiotics usually clear it right up. On a side note, while most people get a strep infection in their throat, you can get it in other places like (drum roll please) your anus. It’s called Perianal (say “pair-ee-AY-nal”) strep and is an infection of the skin around the anus. Yeah, I shivered a little there, too.
But back to strep throat, for some kids, like my son, it’s a regular thing. So regular that strep throat can really hurt a child’s education due to missed school days. On top of missing out on important education, children who get recurrent tonsillitis also have to take many bouts of antibiotics, which isn’t great for the current antibiotic resistance problem or for their gut flora. Having regular strep throat can be damaging in a number of areas.
According to the study, to try to get to the bottom of what causes some children to pick up this bacteria more than others, researchers collected children from the San Diego area who had recurrent tonsillitis, matched them with similar children who got normal tonsillitis, then looked at various markers for their immune systems to see what differed between the two groups.
Now listen, the study gets into some pretty hard core bacterial and biological information which went a bit over my head, but basically what it all boiled down to is that tonsils are part of the immune system. They have sites inside them called germinal centers, which produce and mature different types of immune cells. Now, some children simply don’t produce as many immune cells. And not by a little… but by a lot. Like 12 times less.
Now you might be asking, what does this all mean?
That’s a good question because it’s a preliminary study. Basically, doctors have an answer now when parents like me ask why their kid has strep for the millionth time and got nada from the doctor outside of “it just happens.” They also found out that this is most likely a genetic issue. And I must say, this all seems strange to me considering I never got strep throat, and my son got it all the time. I don’t like to do this openly, but I can probably blame his mother for those genes. But hold on, don’t get angry. She also gave him amazing eyes and the ability to read far faster than I ever could, so I suppose it all evens out.
What this study really does is allow doctors to take the first step in understanding reoccurring strep throat. This also makes it easier for doctors to potentially screen for children who are at a high risk of reoccurring strep throat, and make recommendations to prevent it from happening before it happens. Now I know those of you who lived through strep throat might not find this very comforting. You are probably already over it, but think of your children because this is obviously a step in the right direction to preventing more sick days, and your life coming to a sudden halt because your child has strep, once again.
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