Strep throat: How serious can it get?

Following a tragic story out of Arizona where a 7-year-old girl had to have several amputations after she was diagnosed with strep throat (group A strep) earlier this month, many parents might be questioning how serious this fairly common infection can actually get. 

Strep throat is an infection caused by a bacteria known as group A streptococcus, or streptococcus pyogenes, according to Yale Medicine. 

Children are at greater risk of contracting this infection, however, preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from fall of 2023 showed an increase in infections among adults, particularly those aged 65 and older. 

"Preliminary data indicate invasive group A strep infections remained high through April 2023, declined during the summer, and then increased again in the fall," the website read. 

Overall numbers of people who were infected with group A strep will exceed those of 2022, the CDC predicted. 

It is estimated that several million cases of group A strep illnesses occur each year in the U.S., according to the CDC. 


FILE - Child having their throat checked by a doctor. (Getty)

How serious can strep throat become? 

In most cases, infections caused by group A strep can lead to mild illness with common symptoms such as sore throat, pain when swallowing, fever, and swollen lymph nodes and tonsils. 

However, if a strep infection goes untreated, the bacteria will often wreak havoc on your kidneys, causing swelling, blood in urine, and joint pain. If the infection goes this far, you will need to be watched closely to ensure that the medicine is working effectively. 

In other undiagnosed cases, the strep infection can spread to major areas such as the skin, heart, blood, and nervous system. Some people progress on to such illnesses as scarlet fever, meningitis, or even toxic shock. Again, these extreme cases are rare, especially if the infection is treated at the first onset of symptoms. 

Typically, a person who is infected with strep can and will be treated with antibiotics prescribed by a health care provider. 

For some people, recurrent strep throat might prompt health care providers to suggest having the tonsils removed via a tonsillectomy. 

In one extreme case out of Arizona, a 7-year-old girl underwent eight surgeries and had both feet and her right hand amputated after battling a group strep A illness. 

The parents of Victoria Pasten-Morales said everything started with a fever and pain, followed by vomiting within a span of 12 hours. 

"Everything happened very fast," Obdulia Morales, the child’s parent, told FOX 10 Phoenix.  

The infection impacted Victoria’s kidney and lungs and while she is awake, she is on a ventilator. 

Their message to other parents: take the little things seriously before it’s too late.

How contagious is strep? 

Strep is highly contagious, according to the CDC. The illness spreads to other people via respiratory droplets or direct contact. 

It usually takes about two to five days after exposure to become sick with strep. 

As mentioned before, strep is more common among children, but adults can get it too. 

It is also worth noting that a person can be infected with strep but have no symptoms. 

They are called strep carriers, according to the CDC, and generally, they do not need any antibiotics. They are also less likely to spread the bacteria. 

Strep symptoms

Common symptoms of strep throat include: 

  • Fever
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Sore throat that started very quickly
  • Throat, tonsils look red and swollen
  • White patches or streaks of pus on tonsils
  • Tiny, red spots on roof of mouth called petechiae
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the front of neck

FOX News contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.