(See also Pneumococcal Infections [discussed in Pneumococcal Infections], Rheumatic Fever [discussed in Rheumatic Fever], and Tonsillopharyngitis [discussed in Tonsillopharyngitis].)
Streptococci are gram-positive aerobic organisms that cause many disorders, including pharyngitis, pneumonia, wound and skin infections, sepsis, and endocarditis. Symptoms vary with the organ infected. Sequelae include rheumatic fever and glomerulonephritis. Most strains are sensitive to penicillin, although macrolide-resistant strains have recently emerged.
Three different types of streptococci are initially differentiated by their appearance when they are grown on sheep blood agar. β-Hemolytic streptococci produce zones of clear hemolysis around each colony, α-hemolytic streptococci (commonly called viridans streptococci) are surrounded by green discoloration resulting from incomplete hemolysis, and γ-hemolytic streptococci are nonhemolytic.
Subsequent classification, based on carbohydrates in the cell wall, divides streptococci into Lancefield groups A through H and K through T (Table 2: Classification of Streptococci). Viridans streptococci form a separate group that is difficult to classify. In the Lancefield classification, enterococci were initially included among the group D streptococci. More recently, enterococci have been classified as a separate genus (see Enterococcal Infections).
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Many streptococci elaborate virulence factors, including streptolysins, DNAases, and hyaluronidase, which contribute to tissue destruction and spread of infection. A few strains release exotoxins that activate certain T cells, triggering release of cytokines, including tumor necrosis factor-α, interleukins, and other immunomodulators. These cytokines activate the complement, coagulation, and fibrinolytic systems, leading to shock, organ failure, and death.
Diseases Caused by Streptococci
The most significant streptococcal pathogen is S. pyogenes, which is β-hemolytic and in Lancefield group A and is thus denoted as group A β-hemolytic streptococci (GABHS). The 2 most common acute diseases due to GABHS are pharyngitis and skin infections; in addition, delayed, nonsuppurative complications (rheumatic fever, acute glomerulonephritis) sometimes occur ≥ 2 wk after infection.
Disease caused by other streptococcal species is less prevalent and usually involves soft-tissue infection or endocarditis (Table 2: Classification of Streptococci). Some non-GABHS infections occur predominantly in certain populations (eg, group B streptococci in neonates and postpartum women).
Infections can spread through the affected tissues and along lymphatic channels to regional lymph nodes. They can also cause local suppurative complications, such as peritonsillar abscess, otitis media, sinusitis, and bacteremia. Suppuration depends on the severity of infection and the susceptibility of tissue.
Streptococcal pharyngitis is usually caused by GABHS. About 20% of patients present with sore throat, fever, a beefy red pharynx, and a purulent tonsillar exudate. The remainder have less prominent symptoms, and the examination resembles that of viral pharyngitis. The cervical and submaxillary nodes may enlarge and become tender. Streptococcal pharyngitis can lead to peritonsillar abscess (see Peritonsillar Abscess and Cellulitis). Cough, laryngitis, and stuffy nose are not characteristic of streptococcal pharyngeal infection; their presence suggests another cause (usually viral or allergic). An asymptomatic carrier state may exist in as many as 20%.
Scarlet fever is uncommon today, but outbreaks still occur. Transmission is enhanced in environments that result in close contact among people (eg, in schools or day-care centers). Scarlet fever, a predominantly childhood disease, usually follows a pharyngeal streptococcal infection; less commonly, it follows streptococcal infections at other sites (eg, the skin). Scarlet fever is caused by group A streptococcal strains that produce an erythrogenic toxin, leading to a diffuse pink-red cutaneous flush that blanches with pressure. The rash is seen best on the abdomen or lateral chest and as dark red lines in skinfolds (Pastia lines) or as circumoral pallor. The rash consists of characteristic numerous small (1- to 2-mm) papular elevations, giving a sandpaper quality to the skin. The upper layer of the previously reddened skin often desquamates after fever subsides. A strawberry tongue (inflamed papillae protruding through a bright red coating) also occurs and must be differentiated from that seen in toxic shock syndrome (see Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS)) and Kawasaki disease (see Kawasaki Disease (KD)). Other symptoms are similar to those in streptococcal pharyngitis, and the course and management of scarlet fever are the same as those of other group A infections.
Skin infections include impetigo (see Impetigo and Ecthyma) and cellulitis (see Cellulitis). Cellulitis may spread rapidly because of the numerous lytic enzymes and toxins produced mainly by group A streptococci. Erysipelas (see Erysipelas) is a particular form of streptococcal cellulitis.
Necrotizing fasciitis due to S. pyogenes is a severe dermal (or rarely muscular) infection that spreads along fascial planes (see Necrotizing Subcutaneous Infection). Inoculation originates through the skin or bowel, and the defect may be surgical, trivial, distant from the disease site, or occult, as with colonic diverticula or an appendiceal abscess. Necrotizing fasciitis is prevalent among IV drug abusers. Formerly known as streptococcal gangrene and popularized as the flesh-eating bacteria, the same syndrome may also be polymicrobial, involving a host of aerobic and anaerobic flora, including Clostridium perfringens. When necrotizing fasciitis occurs in the perineum, it is called Fournier gangrene. Comorbid conditions, such as impaired immunity, diabetes, and alcoholism, are common. Symptoms begin with fever and exquisite localized pain; pain increases rapidly over time and is often the first (and sometimes only) manifestation. Diffuse or local erythema may be present. Thrombosis of the microvasculature causes ischemic necrosis, leading to rapid spread and disproportionally severe toxicity. In 20 to 40% of patients, adjacent muscles are invaded. Shock and renal dysfunction are common. Mortality is high, even with treatment.
Other serious streptococcal infections include septicemia, puerperal sepsis, endocarditis, and pneumonia.
Streptococcal toxic shock syndrome (see Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS)), similar to that caused by S. aureus, may result from toxin-producing strains of GABHS and occasionally from other streptococci. Patients are usually otherwise healthy children or adults with skin and soft-tissue infections.
The mechanism by which certain strains of GABHS cause delayed complications is unclear but may involve cross-reactivity of streptococcal antibodies against host tissue.
Rheumatic fever (see Rheumatic Fever), an inflammatory disorder, occurs in < 3% of patients in the weeks after untreated GABHS upper respiratory tract infection. It is much less common today than in the preantibiotic era. Diagnosis is based on a combination of arthritis, carditis, chorea, specific cutaneous manifestations, and laboratory test results (Jones criteria). One of the most important reasons for treating strep throat is to prevent rheumatic fever.
Poststreptococcal acute glomerulonephritis (see Rapidly Progressive Glomerulonephritis (RPGN)) is an acute nephritic syndrome following pharyngitis or skin infection due to a certain limited number of nephritogenic strains of GABHS (eg, M protein serotypes 12 and 49). After a throat or skin infection with one of these strains, about 10 to 15% of patients develop acute glomerulonephritis. It is most common among children, occurring 1 to 3 wk after infection. Nearly all children, but somewhat fewer adults, recover without permanent renal damage. Antibiotic treatment of GABHS infection has little effect on development of glomerulonephritis.
PANDAS syndrome (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with group A streptococci) refers to a subset of obsessive disorders or tic disorders in children thought to be exacerbated by GABHS infection.
Certain forms of psoriasis (eg, guttate) may also be related to β-hemolytic streptococcal infections.
Streptococci are readily identified by culture on a sheep blood agar plate.
Rapid antigen-detection tests that can detect GABHS directly from throat swabs are available. Many tests use enzyme immunoassay, but more recently, tests using optical immunoassay have become available. These rapid tests have high specificity (> 95%) but vary considerably in sensitivity (55% to 80 to 90% for the newer optical immunoassay test). Negative results should be confirmed by culture (particularly if use of a macrolide is being considered because of potential resistance).
During convalescence, evidence of infection can be obtained indirectly by demonstrating antistreptococcal antibodies in serum. Antibodies are most useful in diagnosis of poststreptococcal diseases, such as rheumatic fever and glomerulonephritis. Confirmation requires that sequential specimens show a rise in titer because a single value may be high because of a long antecedent infection. Serum specimens need not be taken more often than every 2 wk and may be taken every 2 mo. To be considered significant, a rise (or fall) in titer should span at least 2 serial dilutions. The antistreptolysin O (ASO) titer rises in only 75 to 80% of infections. For completeness in difficult cases, any one of the other tests (antihyaluronidase, antideoxyribonuclease B, antinicotinamide adenine dinucleotidase, antistreptokinase) can also be used. Penicillin given within the first 5 days for symptomatic streptococcal pharyngitis may delay the appearance and decrease the magnitude of the ASO response. Patients with streptococcal pyoderma usually do not have a significant ASO response but may have a response to other antigens (ie, anti-DNAase, antihyaluronidase).
(See also the Infectious Diseases Society of America's Practice Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Group A Streptococcal Pharyngitis.) and The American Heart Associations' Preventing of Rheumatic Fever.)
Ordinarily, pharyngeal GABHS infections, including scarlet fever, are self-limited. Antibiotics shorten the course in young children, especially those with scarlet fever, but have only modest effect on symptoms in adolescents and adults. However, antibiotics help prevent local suppurative complications (eg, peritonsillar abscess), otitis media, and rheumatic fever.
Penicillin is the drug of choice. No isolate of GABHS has demonstrated penicillin resistance clinically, probably because it lacks altered penicillin-binding proteins, has an inefficient gene transfer mechanism for resistance, or both. However, some streptococcal strains appear to have in vitro tolerance to penicillin; the clinical significance of such strains is unclear.
A single injection of benzathine penicillin G, 600,000 units IM for small children (< 27.3 kg) or 1.2 million units IM for adolescents and adults usually suffices. Oral drugs may be used if the patient can be trusted to maintain the regimen for the required 10 days. Choices include penicillin V 500 mg (250 mg for children < 27 kg) po q 12 h; amoxicillin 50 mg/kg (maximum 1 g) once/day for 10 days is an effective substitute for penicillin V. Oral narrow-spectrum cephalosporins (eg, cephalexin, cefadroxil) are also effective and can be used unless patients have an anaphylactic reaction to penicillin. Azithromycin can be used for a 5-day course of therapy, although macrolides are inactive against Fusobacterium necrophorum, a common cause of pharyngitis in adolescents and adults. Delaying treatment 1 to 2 days until laboratory confirmation increases neither the duration of disease nor the incidence of complications.
When penicillin and a β-lactam are contraindicated, choices include clindamycin 600 mg (6.7 mg/kg for children) po q 8 h, erythromycin or clarithromycin 250 mg (7.5 mg/kg for children) po q 12 h for 10 days, and azithromycin 500 mg (15 mg/kg for children) once/day for 5 days. Because resistance of GABHS to macrolides has been detected, some authorities recommend in vitro confirmation of susceptibility if a macrolide is to be used and there is macrolide resistance in the community. Clindamycin 6.7 mg/kg po q 8 h is preferred in children who have relapses of chronic tonsillitis, possibly because it has good activity against penicillinase-producing staphylococci or anaerobes coinfecting the tonsillar crypts and inactivating penicillin G and because it appears to halt exotoxin production more rapidly than other drugs. Amoxicillin/clavulanate is also effective. Trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole (TMP/SMX), some of the fluoroquinolones, and tetracyclines are unreliable for treating GABHS.
Sore throat, headache, and fever can be treated with analgesics or antipyretics. Aspirin should be avoided in children. Bed rest and isolation are unnecessary. Close contacts who are symptomatic or have a history of poststreptococcal complications should be examined for streptococci.
Cellulitis is often treated without doing a culture because isolating organisms can be difficult. Thus, regimens effective against both streptococci and staphylococci are used (eg, dicloxacillin or cephalexin if methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus [MRSA] is not likely or TMP/SMX, linezolid, minocycline, or clindamycin if MRSA is suspected—see Treatment).
Necrotizing fasciitis should be treated in an ICU. Extensive (sometimes repeated) surgical debridement is required. A recommended initial antibiotic regimen is a β-lactam (often a broad-spectrum drug until etiology is confirmed by culture) plus clindamycin. Although streptococci remain susceptible to β-lactam antibiotics, animal studies show that penicillin is not always effective against a large bacterial inoculum because the streptococci are not rapidly growing and lack penicillin-binding proteins, which are the target of penicillin activity.
Other streptococcal infections:
Drugs of choice for treating group B, C, and G infections are penicillin, ampicillin, or vancomycin. Cephalosporins or macrolides are usually effective, but susceptibility tests must guide therapy, especially in very ill, immunocompromised, or debilitated people and in people with foreign bodies at the infection site. Surgical wound drainage and debridement as adjuncts to antimicrobial therapy may be lifesaving.
S. bovis (including S. gallolyticus) is relatively susceptible to antibiotics. Although vancomycin-resistant S. bovis isolates have been reported, the organism remains susceptible to penicillin and aminoglycosides.
Most viridans streptococci are often susceptible to penicillin G and other β-lactams. Resistance is growing, and therapy for such strains should be dictated by results of in vitro susceptibility tests.
Last full review/revision April 2013 by Larry M. Bush, MD; Maria T. Perez, MD
Content last modified May 2013