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A Useful Guide to Scarlet Fever: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment Options in Children and Adults

While we’ve all probably heard the term “scarlet fever,” many aren’t fully aware of what this condition actually entails. Defined as a bacterial illness, early scarlet fever symptoms can often be misinterpreted for other conditions such as teething fever or even red eyes in babies. 

Also referred to as scarlatina, scarlet fever often occurs in those suffering from a strep infection. But did you know that scarlet fever has been around for centuries? 

Thought to be originally recorded by Hippocrates himself in 400 B.C., the causes of scarlet fever remained unknown for many years. The first confirmed description of the disease came to light in 1553, where it was referred to as scarlatina. 

The connection between scarlet fever and strep infections wasn’t discovered until 1874. The presence of streptococci in the throats of those suffering symptoms of scarlet fever was considered a breakthrough, as it allowed experts to establish more effective courses of treatment. 

The first official antitoxin used as a scarlet fever treatment was engineered in 1924, and the subsequent discovery of penicillin was a huge advantage. It significantly helped to reduce cases of scarlet fever and avoid a great number of deaths, and this condition was no longer seriously feared.

Symptoms of scarlet fever may vary from case to case, but the most common scarlet fever symptoms include: 

  • Noticeable red rash appearing similar to sunburn - typically begins on the neck and face, then spreads to other areas of the body 
  • Red bumps across the tongue known as “strawberry tongue”
  • Skin folds becoming a deep shade of red, mainly occurring on armpits, knees, elbows, and groin area 
  • High fever, often accompanied by chills and sweats
  • Problems swallowing with a sore, red throat
  • Intermittent headaches

As you’ve probably gathered, scarlet fever got its name from the vibrant red rash that typically occurs. Often persisting for around a week, the rash generally peels once symptoms begin to subside and the individual starts to recover.

If you’re not in-the-know and find yourself asking “how does one get scarlet fever?”, the answer is relatively simple. 

As already mentioned, there is a strong link between the development of scarlet fever and strep conditions. This is because scarlet fever symptoms are caused by a specific strain of strep (streptococcus) bacteria, specifically referred to as streptococcus pyogenes. 

This particular strain is responsible for not only causing strep throat, but also produces a toxin leading to the infamous scarlet fever rash. Scarlet fever can be passed from person to person by the transmission of bacteria droplets, either by coughing or sneezing - similar to how the flu is spread.

If you notice your child developing a sudden rash while complaining of a sore throat, scarlet fever is the likely culprit. While scarlet fever in babies or children can be incredibly worrying for parents, it’s important to remember that treatment is relatively simple, and the majority of kids make a full recovery! 

Especially if a high fever is also present, take your child to the doctor as soon as possible. They’ll perform a throat swab test to check for strep bacteria and, if present, will prescribe antibiotics. As streptococcus bacteria is typically the root cause of scarlet fever, these antibiotics will also treat their rash. 

When taken properly, the majority of children respond rapidly to antibiotics. Their red throat and fever should subside in 24 hours, and their rash should begin to clear within 3-5 days. However, if your child’s scarlet fever symptoms don’t appear to be improving, visit your doctor for further advice. 

If left untreated, scarlet fever can lead to more serious issues. Untreated scarlet fever could also cause sinus and ear infections, and rheumatic fever in serious cases.

It’s also crucial to always seek professional advice and treatment from your doctor instead of self-diagnosing your children. As mentioned, other conditions could be accidentally mistaken as symptoms of scarlet fever (including breathing problems), so visit your local pediatrician for a clear diagnosis.

Scarlet fever in adults is treated almost identically to children. A course of antibiotics will be prescribed, and symptoms should begin to ease relatively quickly. 

Once scarlet fever treatment begins, infected individuals will no longer be contagious after the first 24 hours. However, even if you begin feeling better before you’ve completed your full treatment course, it’s crucial to continue taking your antibiotics regardless. This is the only way to ensure the infection is 100% cured, as ending your course too early allows remaining bacteria to re-multiply. 

There is currently no vaccine for scarlet fever, meaning there’s no way to protect yourself or your children against it. However, current antibiotic treatment methods are very effective, and all scarlet fever symptoms should significantly improve within a week. 

Contrary to popular belief, having scarlet fever once doesn’t mean you’re immune from catching it again. But while there’s the possibility of contracting scarlet fever multiple times, if you’re careful, you’ll dramatically reduce your risk of developing symptoms. 

Washing your hands often is a great method of prevention, and being sure to cover your nose and mouth when coughing/sneezing is crucial. Ideally, cover your face with a tissue, but coughing or sneezing into your sleeve or elbow is a suitable alternative. All used tissues should be disposed of as soon as possible. 

If you or one of your children is suffering from scarlet fever symptoms and undergoing treatment, avoid human contact until antibiotics have been taken for at least 24 hours. After this period, you should no longer be contagious.

While considered a serious condition, scarlet fever is relatively easy to treat in both adults and children. Characteristic symptoms make the condition fairly simple to identify and, as long as you ensure the full course of antibiotics is taken, there’s no reason you shouldn’t make a full recovery!

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/scarlet-fever/symptoms-causes/syc-20377406

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK333430/

https://www.healthline.com/health/scarlet-fever

https://www.cdc.gov/groupastrep/diseases-public/scarlet-fever.html

https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/scarlet-fever.html

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279620/

https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/infections-and-poisoning/scarlet-fever

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