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PANDAS In Children:  Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, And Prevention

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PANDAS (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders) is often associated with Streptococcus pyogenes infections. The symptoms appear suddenly and tend to worsen rapidly after a strep infection.

Children usually get Streptococcus infections when they breathe in droplets of saliva/ nasal secretions of the infected person or touch a contaminated surface and then touch their face.

Strep infections are usually mild and may cause a minor skin infection or sore throat. However, they may also lead to severe infections such as strep throat infection, scarlet fever, and rheumatic fever.

Some children recover fully from a strep infection, whereas others may develop sudden physical and physiological symptoms. Read this post as we explain the symptoms, causes, and treatment options for PANDAS in children. 

Symptoms Of PANDAS In Children

The symptoms of PANDAS in children start abruptly, after about four to six weeks after a pyogenes infection. The symptoms can be grouped under two categories, psychological and physical (1) (2).

Psychological or neuropsychiatric symptoms include:

  • Hyperactivity, inattention, or fidgeting.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and repeated activities.
  • Separation anxiety, wherein the child becomes clingy and always wants to be close to the parents or the caretaker.
  • Swift mood changes, such as irritability, sadness, and suicidal thoughts.
  • Learning disabilities, such as short-term memory problems.
  • Hallucinations and a terror-stricken look

Physical symptoms include:

  • Tics — involuntary and unusual jerky movements.
  • Changes in motor skills, such as sudden changes in handwriting.
  • Joint pains.
  • Nighttime bed-wetting, frequent daytime urination, or both.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Eating problems and weight loss.
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, and touch.

Your child may not show all these symptoms, but they will generally show a mix of psychological and physical symptoms.

Due to the overlapping of the symptoms, PANDAS is often mistaken for autism and classic obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). However, these conditions and PANDAS are not related. The key features that set PANDAS apart are the sudden onset of symptoms and the presence of symptoms such as sleep difficulties, loss of bladder control, loss of appetite, and tics (3). 

Causes Of PANDAS In Children

PANDAS often occurs after a strep infection. Thus, what could be the relationship between these two? Let’s find out.

Although the exact cause of PANDAS is still under research, there is a theory that explains the PANDAS to be an immune response to a strep infection.

Strep bacteria try to survive in the human body by hiding themselves from the body’s immune system. The bacteria mimic and synthesize molecules similar to those found on your child’s heart, joints, skin, and brain tissues. They then place these molecules on their cell wall to look identical to the cells of the body.

Eventually, the body’s immune system recognizes the bacterial cells and produces antibodies against them.

As the bacterial cells are similar to certain proteins on the body’s cells, the antibodies can sometimes attack other parts of the body, causing a myriad of symptoms (2).

Risks And Complications Of PANDAS In Children

PANDAS is a disorder generally found in children aged three to 12. However, research has found that it can occur in adolescents in some rare cases. Children who have a weak immune system due to comorbidities or those who have repeated strep infections could be at a higher risk of developing PANDAS (2).

Children with PANDAS have an increased risk of developing obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), tic disorders, and Tourette syndrome (4).

Diagnosis Of PANDAS

There is no one specific test for the diagnosis of PANDAS. One of the initial diagnostic criteria is the sudden onset of symptoms associated with OCD or a tic disorder following a strep infection.

The common diagnostic criteria include the following (5).

  • The doctor would ask you when the symptoms started to worsen.
  • A throat swab to test for strep may be done when the symptoms first appear.
  • If the throat swab does not show any signs of strep infection, a blood test for an antibody called anti-streptolysin O (ASO) is recommended.
  • Other tests such as EEGs and echocardiograms may also be ordered based on the condition of your child.

Treatment Of PANDAS In Children

Your doctor would examine the reports and prescribe the best possible treatment option to eliminate the strep infection.

Antibiotics are the first-line treatment for a strep infection. Once the infection is eliminated, the PANDAS symptoms would subside. After the course of antibiotic treatment, the doctor would recommend a throat culture.

In case your child has psychological symptoms of PANDAS, your doctor might refer to standard medications (antidepressants) or behavioral therapies (cognitive behavioral therapy), or both.

Other treatments such as plasma exchange or immunoglobulin (IVIG) may be considered for children who are severely affected by PANDAS. However, these treatments have side effects such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness (2).

PANDAS can be cured once the strep infection is treated. However, it might take some time for the symptoms to subside once the infection is cleared. Also, there are chances of your child developing PANDAS if they catch a strep infection again.

Prevention Of PANDAS

The only way to prevent the PANDAS syndrome in children is by protecting them from strep infections. Follow the tips mentioned below to reduce the risk of your children catching a strep infection.

  • Make sure they wash their hands before eating and after returning from a crowded place.
  • Instruct them not to share personal items, such as towels, clothes, and drinking utensils with others.
  • Teach them to cover their nose and mouth while coughing and sneezing.
  • If anyone in your family has strep infections, isolate them and make sure your children are not in their vicinity.

Although PANDAS can be cured with medication, it would take a considerable amount of time for the symptoms to subside. Early diagnosis is of utmost importance for the treatment of PANDAS in children. Also, teach your child to take preventive measures to avoid contracting strep infections. 

References:

MomJunction's health articles are written after analyzing various scientific reports and assertions from expert authors and institutions. Our references (citations) consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.

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