Scarlet fever, also known as scarlatina, is an infection that can develop in people who have strep throat. It’s characterized by a bright red rash on the body, usually accompanied by a high fever and sore throat. The same bacteria that causes strep throat also causes scarlet fever.
Scarlet fever mainly affects children between the ages of 5 and 15 years. It used to be a common and serious childhood illness, but it’s 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.
Strep throat rash
A rash is the most common sign of scarlet fever in both adults and children. It usually looks like a sunburn and feels like sandpaper. The scarlet-colored rash is what gives scarlet fever its name.
The rash typically begins on the chest and stomach and then spreads to the rest of the 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 2 and 7 days. After it has subsided, the affected skin will peel, as will the skin on the tips of the fingers and toes.
Other common symptoms of scarlet fever include:
- red lines or streaks around the armpits, elbows, and knees
- flushed face
- strawberry tongue, or a white tongue with red dots on the surface
- red, sore throat with white and yellow patches
- fever above 101°F (38.3°C)
- swollen tonsils
- nausea and vomiting
- swollen glands in the back of the neck
- pale skin around the lips
Scarlet fever is caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria, which are bacteria that can live in your mouth and nasal passages. These bacteria produce a toxin, or poison, that causes a bright red rash on the body.
Is it contagious?
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 something that has droplets from an infected person and then touch their own mouth, nose, or eyes. They may also get scarlet fever if they drink from the same glass or eat from the same plate as an infected person. Scarlet fever can also be passed through skin contact.
Scarlet fever mainly affects children between the ages of 5 and 15 years. You can also catch scarlet fever from being in close contact with others who are infected.
In most cases, the rash and other symptoms of scarlet fever will be gone in about two weeks. However, 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.
Your child’s doctor will first perform a physical exam to check for signs of scarlet fever. During the exam, the 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 the 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 swab or throat culture. The sample will then be sent to a laboratory to determine whether group A Streptococcus is present.
Scarlet fever is usually treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics kill bacteria and help the body’s immune system fight off the bacteria causing the infection. You’ll need to make sure your child completes the entire course of the prescribed medication. Taking all of it will help prevent the infection from returning. You can also give over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as aspirin (Bayer) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), to control the fever.
Your child’s doctor might also prescribe medication to help ease the pain of a sore throat. Other remedies include eating ice pops, ice cream, or warm soup. Gargling with salt water and using a cool air humidifier can also decrease the severity and pain of a sore throat. It’s also important that your child drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
Your child can return to school after they’ve taken antibiotics for at least 24 hours and no longer have a fever.
There is currently no vaccine for scarlet fever, although many potential vaccines are in clinical development.
Practicing good hygiene is the best way to prevent scarlet fever. Some prevention tips to follow and to teach your children include:
- Washi your hands before meals and after using the restroom.
- Cover your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing.
- Don’t share utensils and drinking glasses with others, especially in group settings.
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 a few remedies to try:
- Drink warm teas or broth-based soups to help soothe your throat.
- Try soft foods or a liquid diet if eating is painful.
- Take OTC acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen to ease throat pain.
- Trim your nails to avoid scratching from itching.
- Use OTC anti-itch cream or medication to relieve itching.
- Stay hydrated with water to moisten the throat and avoid dehydration.
- Suck on throat lozenges. According to the Mayo Clinic, children older than 4 years can safely use lozenges to relieve sore throats.
- Stay away from irritants in the air, such as smoke.
- Try a saltwater gargle for throat pain.
- Humidify the air to stop throat irritation from dry air.