Group B streptococcus (GBS) is a topic seldom talked about, yet is a common bacterium carried in the intestines or lower genital tract. It is generally harmless yet can cause infections in adults who suffer from specific chronic medical conditions such as liver disease or diabetes. Surprisingly, many adults carry group B strep within the body – most commonly in the throat, bladder, vagina, bowels, and rectum. This specific bacterium is not sexually transmitted, nor is it spread through food or water. Those adults at an increased risk for the bacterium include diabetics, having a compromised immune system such as HIV, have liver disease, or cancer.
A great deal of attention is paid to pregnant women carrying GBS because they can (but may not) pass it off to their babies during labor. Statistics from the CDC indicated that women who test positive but are not in a high risk category stand a one in 200 chance of delivering a baby with GBS if antibiotics are not given and a one in 4000 chance if they are. This is the reason why the CDC has recommended routine screening between the 35th and 37th week of pregnancy for vaginal strep B for all women who are pregnant. Early onset group B for infants may include fever, kidney problems, instability of the heart, sepsis, lethargy and difficulty feeding. With late onset which might occur in as little time as a week or up to a month or two following delivery, the infant may exhibit dyspnea (difficulty breathing), acquire meningitis, have a fever, become irritable, and have a hard time feeding. Treatment is commonly in the form of intravenous antibiotics, possibly oxygen and other medications, as well. It should be noted that to test positive for group B strep simply implies the woman is a carrier.
In adults, the disorder may cause endocarditis (infected heart valves), sepsis (bloodstream infection, cellulitis (a skin infection), meningitis (inflammation of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord, urinary tract infections, infections of bones and joints, and pneumonia (lung inflammation).
Diagnosis is made by growing cultures of fluid samples collected. On the downside, the cultures will take two or three days to grow which may delay treatment which, for adults, is antibiotics. The specific antibiotic chosen depends on the severity of the infection, its location, and the patient’s medical history.
While unavailable at this time, researchers are attempting to perfect a group B strep vaccine that can help prevent infections in adults.