New research sheds light on repeated strep throat infections.

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Scientists think they know why certain kids repeatedly get strep throat. Getty Images

Watching your child suffer from a bad case of strep throat is heart-wrenching, but it’s a nightmare when the infection occurs over and over.

There are many theories why some kids get strep throat repeatedly and lots of advice on how to prevent it. But according to a recent study, this could be something that can’t be controlled.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, strep throat is caused by a bacterial infection called group A Streptococcus.

When group A strep is a recurring problem, the result can be utter misery. It’s one reason why children may have their tonsils removed.

Now researchers at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) have uncovered the first clues as to why some children may frequently contract group A strep.

In a study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine on Feb. 6, researchers examined the surgically removed tonsils of 26 children between the ages of 5 and 18 years who had recurrent tonsillitis. They also looked at the tonsils of 39 children who had their tonsils removed for other reasons, such as sleep apnea.

What they found is that tonsils from kids with repeat infections had a genetically based poor immune response to group A strep bacteria. When the medical histories of these children were checked, the researchers confirmed the problem did run in some families.

The study found two specific gene variations that make it harder for someone who has them to fight strep throat. These gene variations were associated with the children who got recurrent tonsillitis.

The researchers also found one gene variation that protected against group A strep infection.

They hope this discovery will lead to a new vaccine that prevents recurring tonsillitis. This could mean finding relief for young people without the risks of having a tonsillectomy.

“Having a vaccine that trains the immune system in advance might be able to stimulate a protective response that can prevent recurring bouts of tonsillitis,” said the study’s senior author, Shane Crotty, PhD, a professor in the division of vaccine discovery at LJI, in a statement.

Strep throat may be a common childhood illness, but it’s still a serious one.

Just two weeks without treatment can be enough for it to spread to other organs, like the kidneys or heart.

“More serious complications of untreated strep infection include acute rheumatic fever, which can affect the heart and cause kidney damage,” said Dr. Ashanti Woods, attending pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

But serious complications are rare, because most children are treated with antibiotics long before this can happen. It’s important to take the symptoms of strep throat seriously and seek medical attention promptly.

“Symptoms include sore throat, fever, and white pus pockets on very red tonsils in the back of the throat,” said Woods, who wasn’t associated with the study.

Woods says antibiotics are typically taken for about 10 days, depending on the person and the medication. Sometimes, antibiotics can be taken for only five days.

For many years, tonsillectomy was viewed as a solution to recurrent tonsillitis from strep. But the cure may come at the cost of respiratory health.

“Fifty years ago, a tonsillectomy was done at the drop of a hat,” Ron Marino, DO, vice chairman of pediatrics at NYU Winthrop Hospital, told Healthline. “Now a person has to have seven or eight strep infections in a period of one to two years for tonsillectomy to be a viable option.”

And people may still get strep infection after having their tonsils removed. There can be complications, too.

“It’s a surgical procedure, so you’re going to the hospital. Anesthesia is involved with its own risks, and the procedure itself can cause excess bleeding,” Marino said.

Recent research that looked at over 1 million children found there may be long-term health risks from removing tonsils or adenoids (immune glands in the roof of the mouth).

These organs play an important role in the development and function of our immune systems.

According to the study, tonsillectomy was associated with nearly triple the long-term risk of upper respiratory tract diseases. Removing the adenoids was linked with an almost doubled risk of developing a chronic obstructive lung disorder later in life.

According to Woods, the circumstances surrounding recurrent strep throat usually involve close contact with others.

“This is why it’s especially prevalent among households, schools, and day cares,” he said.

Woods adds there are clear steps people can take to lower their risk for strep infection.

“Proper hand-washing, covering of coughs, sneezes, and other respiratory droplets, and staying home when sick are ways to reduce recurrent strep throat,” he said.

Strep throat is a painful condition that’s potentially life-threatening if not treated promptly. Research has found that children who have multiple strep infections in a year may have a genetic trait that makes it hard for them to fight the infection.

Having identified the genes that make some people more susceptible to strep infection than others, researchers think it’s possible to develop a vaccine that can prevent repeat infections in this population.

While a tonsillectomy is one way to treat recurrent infections, it may not be the best solution. In addition to the risk of complications from surgery, a recent study found that the procedure can increase long-term risk of respiratory disease.

Strep throat is transmitted from person to person. To avoid this infection, practice good hand-washing and cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing. Avoid transmitting strep to others by staying home when you’re sick.