(CBS) A child's sore throat might be more than a temporary nuisance.
New research on rats suggests that untreated cases of strep throat - a bacterial illness that's common in children and adolescents - can set the stage for psychiatric problems, including obsessive-compulsive disorder.
That's something parents may want to keep in mind, now that sore throat season is upon us.
It's long been known that, in rare cases, strep can lead to a potentially serious heart problem called rheumatic fever. But the research, led by Dr. Daphna Joel of Tel Aviv University, seems to confirm a long-suspected link between strep and brain disorders, according to a written statement released by a U.S. affiliate of the university.
The research could lead to new drugs for OCD and might even mean that the disorder could be prevented altogether, according to Dr. Joel.
"It's almost impossible to show how strep can lead to OCD in humans - almost all of us, even very young children, have been exposed to the bacterium at one time or another," Dr. Joel said in the statement. "But childhood seems to provide a distinct window of opportunity for the disorder to take root through strep infection."
Working with colleagues at the University of Oklahoma, the researchers infected rats with strep bacteria and compared their behavior to that of uninfected rats, according to the statement. They found that the infected rats were more likely than the control group to develop balance and coordination problems, as well as compulsive behaviors like repetitive grooming.
They also found that antibodies the body producese in response to strep infection are linked to changes in the brain.
"We were able to show that these antibodies are binding to receptors in the brain and changing the way certain neurotransmitters operate, leading to brain dysfunction and motor and behavioral symptoms," Joel said in the statement.
OCD affects about 2.2 million Americans over the age of 18, according to website of the National Institute of Mental Health. The disorder's symptoms, which include obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors, often show up during childhood or adolescence.
What's the take-away message for parents who want to make sure a sore throat doesn't turn into a hard-to-treat case of chronic hand-washing or some other compulsion?
Says Dr. Joel, get suspicious throat problems diagnosed and, if necessary, treated with antibiotics.
In other words, don't be too quick to wash your hands of your child's symptoms.