Scarlet fever in children: how to spot it

The number of children and adults catching scarlet fever is on the rise again. Here's how to recognise the tell-tale bright pink rash


Scarlet fever is a common childhood illness. Back in Victorian times, it was very serious – even fatal – in childhood but, these days, most cases are very mild indeed. With proper treatment, scarlet fever usually clears up quickly but there is a small risk of the infection spreading to other parts of the body, such as the ear, sinuses and lungs.


How do I spot the signs of Scarlet Fever?

The classic symptom of scarlet fever (and what gives it its name) is a fine, bright pink rash that feels like sandpaper to the touch. The rash may start in one part of the body, but soon spreads to the neck, chest and ears, and may be itchy.

Early pre-rash symptoms of the illness may include a headache, a swollen tongue and/or a sore throat, with the rash developing 12 to 48 hours later.

Is there a peak season for Scarlet Fever?

‘Peak season’ for this highly contagious bacterial illness is March and April.

Are young children more at risk of catching it?

Yes. Anybody can catch it but it’s most common in children under the age of 10.

How do you catch it?

Scarlet fever can be caught by breathing in bacteria from airborne droplets sneezed or coughed out by someone who is already infected. It can also be caught through touching someone with a streptococcal skin infection or by sharing contaminated towels, clothes or bedlinen. It can also be caught from ‘carriers’: people who harbour the bacteria in their throat or on their skin but don’t show any symptoms.

What should I do if I think my child has scarlet fever?

If you suspect your child is infected, seek treatment at your GP as soon as possible. The usual treatment is a 10-day course of antibiotics and, once the treatment is started, the fever usually disappears within 24 hours and the rash fades within a few days.

Most people recover completely within 4 or 5 days. Anyone with scarlet fever should stay at home for at least 24 hours after treatment has been started to help prevent spreading the infection to others. To stop yourself and others in your family catching it, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water if you have touched any of tissues or hankies your child has sneezed or coughed into and, while you’re child’s still contagious, don’t let anyone share her/his eating utensils, cups and glasses, clothes, baths, bedlinen or towels.


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