(Bloomberg) -- Britain’s Health Security Agency issued an alert on an unusual rise in Scarlet Fever and Strep A infections last week and said the increase was most likely related to high amounts of circulating bacteria and social mixing. 

Although deaths from a Strep A infection are rare, so far at least eight children have died and the agency said it issued its warning to help make the public aware of the signs and symptoms they should watch out for. 

What is Strep A? 

Group A Streptococcus is a bacteria usually found in the mouth or on the skin that can cause strep throat and scarlet fever, as well as skin infections. In some rare cases, it can lead to more serious illnesses. 

Does it only affect young children?

It is most commonly found in younger children under 10 and can spread rapidly via close contact with an infected person or through coughs and sneezes or from a wound. However, many people carry Strep A harmlessly and don’t develop illness or only get mild infections. 

What are the main symptoms of Strep A?

Symptoms can include a sore throat, fever and a red bumpy skin rash that has a sandpaper-like feel to it, known as scarlet fever. In more severe cases, Strep A can cause invasive infections where the bacteria enters the bloodstream, potentially leading to life-threatening conditions such as sepsis, necrotising fasciitis and abscesses. 

What are the signs of a more serious Strep A infection?

Children can become very quickly unwell when a severe infection sets in. Symptoms to watch out for include a persistently high temperature that won’t ease with normal measures, lethargy, difficulty breathing, severe muscle pain, vomiting, reduced urine production, red and swollen joints or refusal to walk or move an arm. 

Is Strep A more deadly than usual this year? 

There is no indication that a more lethal strain of Strep A is circulating, according to the UK Health Security Agency. It is unusual, however, for cases to be rising at this time of year as typically they tend to peak in late spring or early summer, often after chicken pox infections, according to Elizabeth Whittaker at Imperial College London. There were 851 cases of scarlet fever reported in the week through Nov. 20, more than four times the weekly average in recent years.

During the first two years of the pandemic, children were not mixing as much as they are now and Strep A infections are coinciding with a peak in winter respiratory viruses. When there are high numbers of infections, then severe cases and deaths are more likely. 

How is Strep A treated?

There is no vaccine yet but Strep A is usually treated successfully with antibiotics, such as penicillin. In an invasive setting, however, patients can deteriorate very quickly, which is a major challenge for clinicians meaning parents and carers should be alert to signs of worsening symptoms. 

How is Strep A prevented?

Good hand and respiratory hygiene are important for stopping the spread of many bugs, including Strep A. Children should wash their hands properly with soap for 20 seconds, use a tissue to catch coughs and sneezes and keep away from others when feeling unwell. Children with scarlet fever should stay at home until at least 24 hours after the start of antibiotic treatment to avoid spreading the infection. 

--With assistance from Naomi Kresge.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.