Scarlet fever is an illness that is related to the bacterial infection, strep throat. Scarlet fever is a childhood disease that was once considered very serious. With the use of antibiotic treatments, scarlet fever is generally not considered dangerous any more. However, if left untreated, complications may arise and the bacteria can infect other areas of the body such as the tonsils, ears, sinuses and blood.
Scarlet fever most commonly affects children ranging from 5 to 15 years old. It is closely related to strep throat because it is the same strain of bacteria that is responsible for the development of both illnesses. Not all children who contract strep throat will get scarlet fever. If scarlet fever does develop, it will present as a red, bumpy rash that develops in children who have recently been diagnosed with a strep throat infection.
Individuals with scarlet fever will develop a predominant rash. The rash starts out with the appearance of a severe sunburn. Small red bumps develop and they may be accompanied by itching and irritation. The rash tends to begin on the neck and face with a distinct white area around the mouth. It typically spreads to the chest and back, and causes dark red marks to appear inside the body’s folds, such as the armpits and elbows. The rash lasts an average of 6 days. Afterwards, the affected area may begin to peel. Other symptoms of scarlet fever include:
- Red and bumpy tongue, often with white spots on the tongue (strawberry tongue)
- Fever of 101 F or higher
- Sore throat
- Red throat with white or yellow patches
- Trouble swallowing
- Tender, swollen glands
- Nausea and vomiting
Causes And Risk Factors
The bacterium streptococcus (group A) is responsible for the development of scarlet fever. It is the same bacteria that is responsible for a common strep throat infection. Scarlet fever develops when the bacteria releases a toxin into the body, resulting in the development of the red rash. Not all children who are infected with strep throat will develop scarlet fever because not all streptococcus releases toxins. Additionally, not all children will have a reaction to the toxins if they are released. The group A Streptococcus bacteria are transmitted through droplets that are released into the air after an infected person sneezes, coughs, laughs or talks. Certain risk factors may heighten an individual’s risk for contracting scarlet fever. These include:
- Children ages 5 to 15 years old
- Living with an infected person
- Being in close quarters with an infected person, such as work or school
If you suspect that you or your child has scarlet fever or is experiencing any of the symptoms associated with scarlet fever, contact your doctor for a formal diagnosis. To diagnosis scarlet fever your doctor will likely:
- Examine the throat
- Examine the tonsils and tongue
- Check for enlarged glands or lymph nodes
- Evaluate the rash
Your doctor may also perform a throat culture if the throat appears red, looking for a positive strep infection. If the throat culture is negative, scarlet fever is not the cause of the symptoms and further evaluation may be needed.
Once your doctor has confirmed a strep infection, antibiotics will be prescribed. Typically, the course of antibiotics is given for 10 days. Be sure to complete all antibiotics and take them exactly as prescribed. Failure to finish all medication may result in continued infection and additional complications.
In addition to taking prescribed medicine, there are many things you can do at home to help ease the discomfort associated with scarlet fever. Home care suggestions include:
- Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to reduce fever and ease sore throat pain
- Get plenty of rest
- Stay hydrated
- Eat warm soup or cold ice pops to help relieve sore throat
- Gargle with saltwater
- Use a humidifier, dry air may worsen a sore throat
- Avoid household irritants like cleaning products and cigarette smoke which can further irritate the throat
The bacteria that causes scarlet fever is contagious. While there is no sure way to protect yourself or your child from becoming sick, there are a few simple measures that you can take to provide the best defense against contagious bacteria. Prevention steps include:
- Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water
- Don’t share drinking glasses, utensils, or food with anyone
- Teach your children to cover their mouths and noses while they sneeze and cough to prevent the spread of germs
- Wash an infected persons drinking glasses and utensils separately in hot soapy water
- If you are caring for an infected person be sure to wash your hands frequently
Be sure to isolate a sick child’s drinking glasses and utensils, and whenever possible, wash his or her toys with hot soapy water to prevent the spread of infection. If your child is sick and you suspect scarlet fever, call your doctor immediately.