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Toss Your Child's Toothbrush after a Sore Throat: Fact or Myth?

Tim Boyer's picture
Child with a sore throat

To toss or not to toss your child’s toothbrush after a sore throat?—that is the question a group of researchers asked, tested and then presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in Washington, DC this week to determine whether the medical advice of tossing a toothbrush after having strep throat is really a medical fact or a medical myth.

As any parent can attest, pediatricians and nurses often advise parents to toss their child’s toothbrush and buy them a new one to prevent the spread of Group A Streptococcus (GAS)―the bacteria that causes strep throat―and to prevent a chance of reinfection. But is this advice really warranted? According to new research in a preliminary study, the results say “No.”

Researchers from University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston tested this common medical advice by first attempting to grow streptococcal bacteria on the surfaces of toothbrushes and found that “yes” the bacteria responsible for causing a sore throat diagnosed as strep throat will grow and remain on a toothbrush for at least two days.

Inexplicably, however, the control toothbrushes (which should have been sterile out of their packaging) treated under the same conditions but without the added bacteria, also showed bacteria growth of both normal, common bacteria and the bacteria responsible for strep throat.

In a second experiment, the researchers gave new toothbrushes to 14 patients diagnosed with strep throat, 13 patients with non-strep sore throats and 27 well children. All participants in the study were instructed to brush their teeth for one minute with the new toothbrushes without using toothpaste. The brushes were immediately collected using sterile technique and taken to a lab to test the brushes for bacteria.

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What the researchers found was that only one toothbrush tested positive for streptococcal bacteria―from a study participant who was diagnosed as healthy! None of the toothbrushes used by strep-positive children tested positive for the strep throat bacteria.

Furthermore, they also found that other common non-strep mouth bacteria were present in many of the brushes and determined that the majority of toothbrushes removed brand new from their packaging were not sterile as most people assume.

According to a press release issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics:

"This study supports that it is probably unnecessary to throw away your toothbrush after a diagnosis of strep throat," said co-author Judith L. Rowen, MD, associate professor of pediatrics in the Department of Pediatrics at UTMB.

The conclusion reached by the researchers thus far is that the practice of discarding toothbrushes from children with strep throat is not warranted. However, they do add that their findings are based only on a preliminary study and will need further investigation with a larger amount of subjects and used toothbrushes collected before reaching a definitive conclusion.

Image Source: Courtesy of PhotoBucket

Reference: Poster Abstract from the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting― “Group A Streptococcus on Toothbrushes”; Lauren K. Shepard, Judith L. Rowen and Natalie Williams-Bouyer.