Scarlet fever

What is scarlet fever?

Scarlet fever, also known as scarlatina, is a bacterial infection that is characterised by a red rash covering most of the body. It mainly affects children, but can in rare cases affect adults.

What are the symptoms?

The first signs of scarlet fever are usually a high fever (above 38C) and swollen neck glands, which can cause difficulty with swallowing. After a few days, symptoms also include:

  • A red rash, starting from the chest, which eventually covers most of the body apart from the face
  • A flushed face
  • A red and bumpy tongue

The symptoms of scarlet fever are the same in children and adults.

How is scarlet fever diagnosed?

Scarlet fever diagnosis is very quick and involves two steps:

  • A physical examination – the doctor will check your skin for signs of a rash, your neck for signs of swelling, and your tongue for bumps
  • Throat swab – a small sample of saliva will be taken from your throat to be tested quickly for the bacteria that causes scarlet fever

Sometimes the GP might arrange a blood test to check for infection elsewhere.

What causes scarlet fever?

Scarlet fever is caused by a type of bacteria which also causes strep throat, and appears after the symptoms of strep throat are already apparent. It is a contagious disease, meaning that the bacteria spreads easily from person to person. In most cases, a child who gets scarlet fever will contract it from the children around them in school.

Children aged 5-15 are the most likely to get scarlet fever.

How do you prevent scarlet fever?

You can reduce your risk of getting scarlet fever by reducing the amount that you come into contact with bacteria from other people. Easy steps to reduce your risk include:

  • Washing your hands before and after eating meals, and whenever you go to the toilet
  • Covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing
  • Not sharing food, cutlery, water bottles or cartons of juice or milk with classmates

How is it treated?

Scarlet fever can be treated by taking antibiotics. These should cure you of scarlet fever within a week. It’s common for your symptoms to go away faster than this – but it is important to take the full course of antibiotics or the symptoms may come back.

In the meantime, you can relieve the symptoms by taking painkillers and avoiding throat pain by drinking cold drinks and eating soft foods.

A child who is taking antibiotics can generally return to school after 24 hours of taking their first antibiotic, as they will no longer be contagious.

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