Scarlet fever, also known as scarlatina, is an infection that can develop in people who have strep throat. The infection is caused by group A streptococcus bacteria, which are the same bacteria that cause strep throat. These bacteria produce a toxin, or poison, that causes a bright red rash on the body. The scarlet-colored rash is what gives scarlet fever its name. Aside from the rash, people with scarlet fever usually have a high fever and sore throat.
Scarlet fever mainly affects children between ages 5 and 15. It used to be a common and serious childhood illness, but it’s relatively rare today. Antibiotic treatments have reduced the severity of the symptoms and the prevalence of the disease. Researchers aren’t sure why cases of scarlet fever have decreased while cases of strep throat remain common.
Scarlet fever is caused by group A streptococcus, which are bacteria that can live in your mouth and nasal passages. The infection may be spread through contact with droplets from an infected person’s sneeze or cough. This means that your child can contract scarlet fever if they touch their mouth, nose, or eyes after touching something that has droplets from an infected person on it. They may also get scarlet fever if you drink from the same glass or eat from the same plate as an infected person.
A rash is the most common sign of scarlet fever. It usually looks like a sunburn and feels like sandpaper. It typically begins on the chest and stomach and then spreads to the rest of your body. The folds of skin around the armpits, elbows, and knees can also become a deeper red than the surrounding rash. The rash typically lasts between two and seven days. After the rash has subsided, the affected skin will peel along with the skin on the tips of the fingers and toes.
Other common symptoms of scarlet fever include:
- a fever above 101°F
- a red, sore throat with white and yellow patches
- swollen tonsils
- a flushed face
- nausea and vomiting
- swollen glands in the back of the neck
- a pale area of skin around the lips
- a white tongue with red dots on the surface, which is called strawberry tongue
Scarlet fever mainly affects children between ages 5 and 15. You can also catch scarlet fever from being in close contact with others who are infected.
Your child’s doctor will first perform a physical exam to check for signs of scarlet fever. During the exam, your doctor will check the condition of your child’s tongue, throat, and tonsils. They’ll also look for enlarged lymph nodes and examine the appearance and texture of the rash.
If your doctor suspects your child has scarlet fever, they’ll swab the back of their throat to collect a sample of their cells for analysis. This is called a throat culture. The sample will then be sent to a laboratory to determine whether the group A streptococcus bacterium is present.
Scarlet fever is usually treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics will kill bacteria and help the body’s immune system fight off the bacteria causing the infection. When antibiotics are prescribed, you’ll need to make sure your child completes the entire course of medication. This will help prevent the infection from returning. Over-the-counter medications, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, can be used to control the fever.
Your child’s doctor might also prescribe medicine to help ease the pain of a sore throat. Other remedies include eating warm soup, popsicles, or ice cream. Gargling with salt water and using a cool air humidifier can further minimize the severity and pain of a sore throat. It’s also important to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
Your child can return to school after they’ve taken antibiotics for at least 24 hours and they no longer have a fever.
In most cases, the rash and other symptoms of scarlet fever will be gone in about two weeks. However, when it’s left untreated, scarlet fever can cause serious complications. These can include:
These complications can usually be avoided if scarlet fever is treated promptly with the proper medication.
Scarlet fever needs to be treated with antibiotics. However, there are things you can do to help ease the symptoms and discomfort that come with scarlet fever. Here are few things to try:
- Drink soothing teas or broth-based soups to help soothe your throat.
- Try soft foods or a liquid diet if eating is painful.
- Take over-the-counter (OTC) acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease throat pain.
- Trim your nails to avoid scratching from itching.
- Use OTC anti-itch cream or medicine to relieve itching.
- Stay hydrated with water to moisten throat and avoid dehydration.
- Eat throat lozenges. The Mayo Clinic says children older than 4 can safely use lozenges to relieve sore throats.
- Stay away from irritants in the air like smoke.
- Try a saltwater gargle for throat pain.
- Humidify the air to stop dry air throat irritation.
Practicing good hygiene is the best way to prevent scarlet fever. Some prevention tips for yourself and to teach your children include:
- washing your hands before meals and after using the restroom
- always covering your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing to prevent the spread of germs
- avoid sharing drinking glasses and utensils with others, especially in a group setting