Is it strep or something more dangerous?

A little known bacteria is packing a nasty punch, especially among teens and college students.

Strep throat is a common childhood infection that can make a kid miserable for days, with symptoms that include a scratchy, swollen throat and high fever. But new research shows that in some cases, what looks like strep might really be another bacterial infection with the potential for deadly complications

College student J.R. McKissick woke up in the middle of the night with his throat on fire.

"It felt like knives every time I would swallow, just kind of all the way down my throat," McKissick said.

Normally, this fourth year optometry student would ignore it, but he had just learned about a bacterial infection that had the potential to make him very sick.

Dr. Robert Centor discovered that when young adults are sick, a little known bacterium called fusobacterium necrophorum is often the culprit.

"We found that it was a more common cause of significant sore throats than strep was," said Dr. Centor, Professor of Internal Medicine, University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Researchers looked at lab cultures of more than 300 college students with sore throats and found 20 percent had fusobacterium. Only 10 percent had Type A strep.

"Strep is not as dangerous as this. . . It ruins lives. It has about a five percent mortality," said Dr. Centor.

He adds that one in 400 with fuso develop a condition called Lemierre's Syndrome. The infection moves into the jugular vein and forms a clot.

Centor says if a sore throat lasts more than five days or gets worse, or if a patient has swelling on one side of the neck or drenching night sweats, it's time to get checked out.

J.R.'s illness was not caused by fuso, but it won't stop him from visiting the student health center every time he has a severe sore throat.

Dr. Centor says fusobacterium infections can be successfully treated with penicillin. Unlike strep throat, there is no rapid test for fusobacterium, making it difficult to diagnose.

Dr. Centor also says fusobacterium was almost wiped out years ago by routine antibiotic use, but has been making a comeback over the past 10 years as people have become concerned with antibiotic resistance.
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