If we were alive 150 years ago, simply hearing the name of this disease – Scarlet Fever – and knowing that it was present in the community, was enough to strike fear and cause chaos.
From 1840 until 1883, scarlet fever became one of the most common infectious childhood disease to cause death in most of the major metropolitan centres of Europe and the US, with case fatality rates that reached or exceeded 30% in some areas, eclipsing even measles.
This disease, even when not deadly, caused large amounts of suffering to those infected. In the worst cases, all of a family’s children were killed in a matter of a week or two. But scarlet fever has virtually disappeared, and although it still remains a threat today, nowhere is it as severe a disease as it was during that frightening time. Unfortunately, there are rare cases of the disease though, as we are hearing about in Sydney at the moment.
So, what is scarlet fever?
Scarlet fever is caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes, also known as group A streptococcus. It usually follows a sore throat or the skin infection, impetigo.
How do you catch it?
It’s highly contagious and children between two and eight are particularly vulnerable. It can be caused by breathing in bacteria in airborne droplets from an infected person’s coughs and sneezes, touching the skin of a person with a streptococcal skin infection and sharing contaminated towels, baths, clothes or bedding. It can also be caught from carriers — people who have the bacteria in their throat or on their skin, but do not show any symptoms.
What are the symptoms?
The illness usually begins with a fever and sore throat. There also may be chills, vomiting and abdominal pain. The throat and tonsils may be red and sore and swallowing may be painful.
One or two days after illness begins, the characteristic red rash appears first on the neck, armpit and groin before spreading all over the body. Typically, the rash begins as small, flat red blotches which gradually become fine bumps and feel like sandpaper.
Cheeks may also appear flushed and creases at the groin, elbow and armpits may become brighter red than the rest of the rash, these are called Pastia’s lines. The rash fades in about seven days.
Other common symptoms of scarlet fever include:
- A red, sore throat with white and yellow patches
- Swollen tonsils
- Nausea and vomiting
- Swollen glands in the back of the neck
- A pale area of skin around lips
- A white tongue with red dots on the surface (strawberry tongue)
How can a doctor tell if you have scarlet fever?
A doctor will swab the back of the throat to collect a sample of your cells for analysis. A laboratory test will determine if the strep bacterium is present in your sample cells. The doctor will also perform a physical exam. During the exam, the doctor will examine the mouth, tongue, throat and tonsils, check for enlarged lymph nodes, and look at the appearance and texture of the rash.
What is the treatment?
It’s treated with antibiotics which must be taken for 10 days, even though most people recover after four or five days. The bacterium must be removed from the body completely so it doesn’t cause any further complications.
How do you prevent it?
Wash hands often and prevent sharing eating utensils, linens, towels or other personal items. Anyone with a sore throat must wash his or her hands often. Children with a streptococcus sore throat or scarlet fever should stay at home from school for at least 24 hours after starting antibiotics.
Complications from Scarlet Fever
In most cases, the rash and other symptoms of scarlet fever will be gone in about two weeks. However, if left untreated, scarlet fever can cause serious complications, including:
- Rheumatic fever
- Kidney disease
- Ear infections
- Skin infections
- Throat abscesses
What other ways do you think you can do to prevent scarlet fever infection?
If you become concerned about any symptoms, please seek immediate medical attention – we have some hotlines and suggested websites for further information and advice – https://www.stayathomemum.com.au/my-kids/babies/important-hotlines-websites/
SAHM takes no responsibility for any illness, injury or death caused by misuse of this information. All information provided is correct at time of publication.