In June of 2006, after a long bout of strep throat, and an equally long bout of unsuccessful antibiotic therapy, my life took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse. Rushed to the hospital with complaints of burning pain, numbness, vertigo, and extreme fatigue, I felt for the first time in my life that I might be dying— that I had a brain tumour or something equally horrible.
Shivering, in a make-shift emergency bed throughout most of the night, I underwent several dozen blood tests, neurological exams, and you name it—everything short of investigative surgery. The hours passed slowly and painfully, while I lay there dumbfounded. As morning eventually came and my vital signs were pronounced normal—albeit with signs of nerve damage— I was released into my doctor’s care with the recommendation that I see a neurologist and infectious disease doctor as soon as possible. My search for a diagnosis had begun.
Over the past several months, my family care doctor had been treating me for strep throat—mostly with first line antibiotics such as penicillin and amoxicillin. When these failed to eradicate the infection—which was admittedly mild by strep standards—he refused to prescribe anything stronger. He was adamant that “there are no recorded cases of strep resistance to penicillin. ” Antibiotic treatment failure is another story, however. A study by the University of Rochester, found that when strep throat is treated with penicillin, a failure rate of approximately 30% was observed among patients. 30% is quite a large number, considering the very real dangers of strep and its post-infection complications.
After a relatively short wait, my appointment with the infectious disease doctor had arrived. Filled with both hope and dread, I took my place in front of his desk. We chatted briefly, whereupon, he felt that I was suffering from an exaggerated immune response to the strep bacteria in my body. He ordered several tests, including one to measure the level of antibodies in my blood to strep. The higher the levels, the more likely a severe immune reaction is taking place. He was also worried about damage to my heart valves and kidneys, which can sometimes occur with untreated strep infections, and another list of tests was ordered.
When the results came in, it was clear that my strep-specific antibodies were through the roof. We had found our smoking gun. While relatively rare, post-infectious inflammatory diseases— where the body’s own immune system attacks the heart, brain, and kidneys— are a very real possibility with strep. In some cases, including my own, these reactions have been known to known to produce symptoms similar to multiple sclerosis—a disease that attacks nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Neurological complications of strep have also been known to include obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s, and Parkinson’s-like movement disorders. In my case, the infectious disease specialist gave me a tentative diagnosis of strep-induced fibromyalgia, nerve damage, and generalized inflammation—although this only begins to describe my ordeal. I was started on long-term antibiotic therapy to eradicate any remaining strep and some of my symptoms gradually began to improve—although not disappear completely. In the end, many of the complications I’ve suffered are irreversible and prone to painful flare ups.
Often I wonder how my life would have been different if my infection had been treated earlier and more aggressively—if it had been taken more seriously. Would I still be living in pain? Would I be happier, or more successful? What should have been the most medically uninteresting, run-of-the-mill, throat infection became a long-term nightmare of immune suppressant medications and difficult-to-treat, misunderstood symptoms.
If this strange and life-altering experience has taught my anything, in the end, it’s that bacterial infections should be dealt with promptly and effectively— the longer they sit, the more likely they are to cause disabling and potentially life-threatening complications.