No parent enjoys seeing their child sick from a bacterial or viral infection. Usually, this means a week or so of dealing with the symptoms and nursing the child back to health. In some instances, though, an infection can have dramatic long-term consequences, altering the child’s behavior completely. A once-happy child may now be moody or irritable, suffer from anxiety attacks, or become apprehensive about separating from parents or loved ones. In extreme cases, he or she can begin exhibiting physical or vocal tics, changes in basic motor skills, or symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
In just the past twenty years or so, more research has emerged about infection triggered disorders and the underlying predispositions and genetic mutations. For example, two specific infection-triggered disorders have been identified: Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcal Infections (PANDAS) and Pediatric Acute-Onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome (PANS). PANS is associated with a variety of different infections, whereas PANDAS is a disorder specifically associated with Group A streptococcal infections.
PANS and PANDAS appear in childhood, typically between the ages of 3 and 12. PANDAS is a relatively rare condition, believed to affect about one in 200 children. However, doctors may sometimes miss PANDAS diagnoses due to some of the common symptoms associated with the disease.
Both disorders are associated with an infection-triggered autoimmune response called “molecular mimicry.” That means organisms such as strep bacteria hide from the immune system by depositing molecules on their cell wall. In this way, they appear nearly identical to molecules found on the child’s heart, joints, skin, and brain tissues, allowing the strep bacteria to evade detection from the immune system for a long time. Eventually, however, the molecules on the strep bacteria are recognized as foreign to the body, and the child’s immune system reacts. Unfortunately, the deployed antibodies attack not only the strep molecules but also the host molecules in the child’s own tissues.
How are Children with Autoimmune and Autism Disorders Affected?
The immune system is made of a complex network of cells, organs, and molecules that fights off bacteria and viruses 24 hours a day. However, in a child with autoimmune disease, the immune system malfunctions and attacks healthy cells and tissues. This may affect virtually any part of the body, including skin, joints, and blood vessels.
Research has generally focused on the identification of genes associated with autism. However, recent studies suggest that immune dysfunction may be a risk factor contributing to the neurodevelopmental deficits observed in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Immune system abnormalities have been widely reported among children with ASD, partially attributable to a genetic tendency towards autoimmunity found in families with an ASD child. Preliminary test results also indicate that children with ASD are more likely to have infections early in life than the general population and even children with other developmental conditions.
This evidence has led to the identification of a major subset of autism called autoimmune autistic disorder (AAD).Research suggests AAD can be identified by testing for immunity issues. And if AAD is indeed an autoimmune disease, that means the condition can be treated medically.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Infection-Triggered Disorders
Currently, the most reliable diagnoses come through blood tests that examine a variety of bacteria, viral, and vitamin levels. Many times, the condition is characterized by an abrupt and sudden onset of symptoms in a child following an illness or infection. These symptoms include:
- OCD, in which children have recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas or sensations (obsessions) that make them feel driven to do something repetitively (compulsions)
- ADHD, characterized by hyperactivity, inattention, or fidgeting
- Separation anxiety
- Changes in mood
- Trouble sleeping
- Degrading motor skills
- Joint pain
Possible treatments for these disorders include treating the underlying infections and vitamin deficiencies, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and medication focused on managing the OCD symptoms, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). However, children with these conditions may be unusually sensitive to the side effects of SSRIs and other medications, so clinicians should prescribe a minimal starting dose of the medication and increase it slowly. If symptoms worsen, the SSRI dosage should be decreased. Before beginning any treatment, please consult with a functional or integrative doctor.
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Kirk Hanley is a freelance writer based in Michigan. You can find out more about him at www.kirkhanley.com.