Adult Sore Throats 2015 – 2016 Flu Season

Robert Centor, M.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, performed the definitive study on adult sore throats showing that 10% or less of adult sore throats are caused by bacteria particularly Group A Streptococcus . He went on to prove that bacterial Strep throats were accompanied by a cough, large swollen and tender lymph nodes, a temperature greater than 100.4 and an exudate on your tonsils. The disease is primarily seen in children age 2-7 and those who care for them and play with them. In adults who did not meet the criteria of having a cough, swollen and enlarged lymph nodes, a temperature of 100.4 and a tonsillar exudate, a rapid streptococcus throat swab was accurate 100 % of the time. If the quick strep analysis is negative you do not have a strep throat and do not require an antibiotic. We had two patients this past fall who did not meet the criteria of Dr. Centor, did not have the physical findings consistent with a strep throat, had a negative quick strep throat swab but upon performing a traditional throat culture were found to be positive for Group a Beta Hemolytic Streptococcus requiring antibiotics. Why did the discrepancy occur? According to the manufacturer they had to recall a batch of diagnostic material that was ineffective. Both patients were placed on antibiotics soon after their clinical course did not follow the path of a viral infection and both did well.

Most adult sore throats and colds do not require antibiotics. We reserve them for patient with debilitating chronic illnesses especially advanced pulmonary, cardiac and neurologic disease patients. With influenza season on the horizon we will continue to assess patient’s clinically using history, exam, quick strep throat swabs and traditional microbiological throat cultures where appropriate. I will continue to prescribe antibiotics where necessary but must admit, last years’ experience opened my eyes to a more liberal approach with the prescribing of antibiotics for simple sore throats.

Should We Treat Sore Throats With Antibiotics?

How many of us have called our doctor with a scratchy throat, mildly swollen glands, congestion and overall malaise and requested an antibiotic?   “I know my body best and if I take an antibiotic I knock it out quickly.” is a common refrain.

In most cases, sore throats are due to viruses. Fewer than 10% of sore throats are caused by bacterial Group A streptococcus.  Antibiotics such as a Z-Pack (Zithromax), Penicillin or Ampicillin do not kill viruses.  If by chance a patient has a sore throat and an upper respiratory tract infection, the length of illness before recovery averages 4-7 days with or without antibiotics -whether strep is present or not.

How then did the throat culture and use of antibiotics begin and what is its rational? In the 1940’s and 1950’s when antibiotics were being introduced to the public it was determined that streptococcus pyogenes was the cause of Rheumatic Fever.  Researchers found that by administering antibiotics to patients with a strep throat they could reduce the rate of acute Rheumatic Fever from 2% to 1% (notice that even with appropriate antibiotic use we cannot prevent all the cases of Rheumatic Fever).

Applying this data in 2011 we find that there is about 1 case of Rheumatic Fever in the United States per 1 million cultured strep throats. In other words, we must prescribe one million prescriptions for antibiotics for sore throat to prevent one case of Rheumatic Fever. In turn, these antibiotics may cause 2,400 cases of allergic reactions, 50,000 cases of diarrhea and an estimated 100, 000 skin rashes.  It doesn’t make sense.

In a recent editorial article in MedPage, an online periodical supported by the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine, George Lundberg M.D. presented a cogent case against throat culture use and antibiotics in sore throats and bronchitis. He suggested that “physicians should not prescribe antibiotics for sore throats….  They don’t help. They often hurt. First, do no harm!”

As an internist dealing with adult patients I am not seeing the groups most likely to catch a strep throat which is young children 2-7 years of age and their caregivers.  If patients present with fever, exudative tonsillitis and pharyngitis with large swollen cervical lymph nodes I will still culture them.  I will treat based on their immune status, general health and risk of having a significant bacterial infection. If I choose to prescribe an antibiotic I will make an adjustment based on the culture results.