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Scarlet fever has been increasing again over recent years with outbreaks at a 50 year high - here's all you need to know about the condition, including symptoms and treatment.
It’s very unlikely that you’ll get scarlet fever twice, because once you’ve had it, you build up immunity to it. Most cases are relatively mild and usually clear up after a week but you should keep an eye on the symptoms in case it becomes more serious.
Here’s all you need to know about the condition so you can spot the symptoms and start to get help.
Find out more about childhood illnesses to look out for.
What is scarlet fever?
It’s an illness caused by a bacteria called streptococcus which is found on the skin and in the throat. This is similar to what causes meningitis but it’s a different strain of the bacteria, and considered not as dangerous. This however doesn’t mean that it isn’t dangerous at all, with some cases becoming very serious if left untreated.
Who can get scarlet fever?
Anyone, but it’s most common in children aged 3-15 with 80 per cent of the cases occurring in children under 10. The most common age for contracting it is four-years-old – so it’s important to be vigilant if you think your child might have caught scarlet fever.
What are the symptoms of scarlet fever in adults, children and babies?
Symptoms usually start to appear between two and five days after infection, although this varies from case to case. Scarlet fever causes a red-pink (scarlet) rash (see below) which feels a bit like sandpaper to the touch.
This is what the scarlet fever rash looks like
Other signs of scarlet fever include:
- A headache
- High temperature (38.3C/101F or above)
- Swollen neck glands
- Sore throat
- White coating with red spots on the tongue often called ‘strawberry tongue’.
The fever lasts a few days, while the rash typically lasts about six days. It can cause skin peeling when it disappears.
Are there any potential complications?
In most cases, when treated properly, there shouldn’t be any further complications. In minimal cases there is a risk of the infection spreading to other parts of the body so you should monitor children carefully if they do contract scarlet fever. Possible further complications include an ear infection, a throat abscess, sinusitis and pneumonia.
It is advised to seek medical help if you or your child develops any of the above symptoms within a few weeks of having scarlet fever.
Is scarlet fever contagious and how does it spread?
Scarlet fever is very contagious so it’s advised to stay indoors once you’ve contracted it, to minimise the risk of passing it on to others.
It’s spread through mucus and saliva, which is why it’s more common in the winter months as coughing and sneezing is more prevalent. Early spring is also a key time for the illness to spread.
How to minimise scarlet fever spreading
If you suspect your child has scarlet fever then the NHS advise keeping them off school and nursery. Even once antibiotics have started to treat the condition they advise staying off for at least a further 24 hour following the first dose of antibiotics, to minimise risk of spreading.
Children should be encouraged to over their mouth and nose when sneezing and wash their hands thoroughly with warm water and soap after disposing of their tissue.
It is also a good idea to avoid sharing things which could be contaminated; like cups, glasses and cutlery, as well as bed linen and towels.
How is scarlet fever confirmed?
Many doctors confirm a scarlet fever diagnosis just from the symptoms, but sometimes a swab is taken from the throat and sent to be tested for streptococcus.
Scarlet fever treatment: how can you treat it?
Most cases are mild and can be easily treated with a course of liquid antibiotics, like penicillin or amoxicillin. Doctors advise children and adults to stay at home until at least 24 hours after they’ve started their antibiotics to make sure they don’t spread scarlet fever among their peers. So no work, school or nursery until then.
Most people will appear recovered within 4-5 days of treatment, but antibiotics must be taken for 10 days.
If not treated with antibiotics children will be infectious for 1-2 weeks and should be kept at home, away from peers, to minimise spreading it amongst friends.
Can you get scarlet fever more than once?
It’s very rare to get it a second time, so usually once you’ve had it you’re immune. It’s worth keeping an eye out for subsequent infections, however, as these do happen occasionally.
Scarlet fever during pregnancy
While scarlet fever is more common in children, adults can still get it – including pregnant women. However, according to the NHS, there’s no evidence the condition can put unborn babies at risk.
The NHS website reads: ‘However, if you are infected when you give birth, there is a risk your baby may also become infected.
‘Pregnant women who have been diagnosed with scarlet fever will be treated with antibiotics, which are safe to take in pregnancy and labour.’