What is scarlet fever and how can you stop it?

Scarlet fever causes a distinctive pink-red rash
Scarlet fever causes a distinctive pink-red rash Photo: NHS Choices

A sudden surge in the number of cases of scarlet fever has sparked a warning from health bosses in the East Midlands.

Scarlet fever is rare in the UK nowadays, with only around 2,000 and 4,000 cases reported each year across the country. However, since the start of the year, there have been more than 130 reported in the East Midlands alone.

Here's what you need to know about the condition. For more information, visit the NHS Choices website.

What is scarlet fever?

  • Scarlet fever is an extremely contagious bacterial infection, which is not usually seen in the UK nowadays.
  • It causes a distinctive pink-red rash, which feels like sandpaper to touch and can be itchy.
  • The rash may start in one area, but soon spreads across the body - including to the ears, neck and chest.
  • Other symptoms include a high temperature, a flushed face and a red, swollen tongue.
  • The symptoms usually develop two to five days after infection - though the patient will be contagious before symptoms appear.
  • It usually follows a sore throat or a skin infection, which is caused by certain strains of the streptococcus bacteria.

How does it spread?

Scarlet fever is extremely contagious and can be caught in the following ways:

  • Breathing in airborne droplet's from coughs or sneezes of someone with scarlet fever.
  • Touching the skin of someone with a similar infection can also spread the infection.
  • Sharing contaminated towels, baths or bed linen.
  • Contact with carriers - people who have the bacteria but no symptoms - or people who have been infected but have not yet developed the symptoms.
Scarlet fever is easily treatable with antibiotics
Scarlet fever is easily treatable with antibiotics Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA

Who can contract it?

  • Anybody can catch scarlet fever, but it usually affects children aged between two and eight.
  • As it is so contagious, it is likely to affect people in close contact with someone who has an infection caused by the bacteria - which can just be a sore throat.
  • People who spend a lot of time in crowded environments, particularly children in day care.
  • People who are susceptible to the toxins produced by the strain of streptococcus bacteria. Most children develop immunity to this by the age of 10.
  • Like chicken pox, it is rare to catch scarlet fever more than once - though it can happen.

How is it treated?

  • While scarlet fever was a very serious condition in years gone by, most cases today are mild and easily treatable with antibiotics.
  • This is usually penicillin tablets, or syrup for young children.
  • The antibiotics must be taken for 10 days, even though most people recover within four or five.
  • Drink plenty of cool fluids and eat soft foods.
  • Take paracetamol to bring your temperature down.
  • Calamine lotion or antihistamine tablets helps relieve itching.

How can you prevent it spreading?

  • If your child has scarlet fever, do not let them go to school. They should be kept away from other people until they have been on antibiotics for at least 24 hours. An infected person can be contagious for up to five weeks if left untreated.
  • All tissues and cloths used by the patient should be washed or thrown away immediately.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after touching the patient, or any towels, tissues and cloths used by them.
  • Avoid sharing contaminated knives and forks, cups, glasses, clothes, baths, bed linen or towels.
A high temperature is one of the symptoms of scarlet fever
A high temperature is one of the symptoms of scarlet fever Credit: David Jones/PA

Are there any complications?

Most cases of scarlet fever do not lead to any complications, especially if properly treated. However, there is a very small chance of some further infections developing.

In the early stages, there is a small risk of:

  • An ear infection
  • A throat abscess
  • Sinusitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Meningitis

Very rare complications can occur at a later stage, particularly if scarlet fever is contracted while already unwell.

These can include:

  • Rheumatic fever - pain in the joints and chest, shortness of breath
  • Glomerulonephritis - damage to the filters in the kidneys
  • Liver damage
  • Osteomyelitis - infection of the bones
  • Blood poisoning
  • Necrotising fasciitis - a flesh-eating disease
  • Toxic shock syndrome

If any other symptoms develop - such as severe headaches, vomiting or diahorrea - seek advice from your GP.