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Can Strep Infection Cause Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

A new book, Saving Sammy, sheds light on a controversial childhood illness

By: Karen Springen

strep throatNot all Pandas are cute bamboo-eating mammals. PANDAS is an acronym for pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections. In laymen's terms, that translates to cases of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and even Tourette's syndrome-like tic behavior, which are linked to untreated strep infections—a hypothesis currently being tested by the .

Many doctors and parents believe that, when left untreated, the streptococcus bacterium that causes strep throat can trigger a sudden-onset form of these conditions in children from age 3 through puberty. The hypothesis: The body launches antibodies against the strep invader, which then mistakenly attack healthy organs, such as the heart, the kidney and the brain. This autoimmune reaction can lead to the abrupt onset, or worsening, of OCD and tics. According to NIMH’s Susan Swedo, M.D., who first described the syndrome in 1998, 10 to 20 percent of children with OCD may have it from PANDAS.

“An untreated strep infection can trigger obsessive-compulsive symptoms and tics in a way very similar to the process that produces rheumatic heart disease and post-strep arthritis,” says Swedo. “These children were perfectly healthy until they ‘caught’ OCD.” If strep is diagnosed and treated quickly, there’s essentially no risk, doctors say.

In Saving Sammy: Curing the Boy Who Caught OCD, author Beth A. Maloney writes about how, even though she wasn’t aware that her son had ever had a strep infection, her otherwise-healthy 12-year-old son suddenly started walking and eating with his eyes shut, and using his limbs instead of his hands to touch light switches, door knobs and faucets. An attorney, Maloney argues that strep caused his obsessive-compulsive disorder—and that medication such as the antibiotic Augmentin cured him.


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