Do you know enough about scarlet fever?

As many of you may be aware, there has been a recent surge in scarlet fever cases in the UK. Since September of last year there have been over 10,000 instances reported and according to the latest Department of Health data, during one week of March there were almost 2,000 individual cases. These are the highest weekly figures seen since current records began.

So what is scarlet fever, and do you need to worry?

Scarlet fever is a bacterial infection caused by Group A beta-haemolytic streptococcus. It tends to affect children between the age of 2 and 10, but recently it has been seen in older children and infants. Before the advent of antibiotics it was a potentially very serious condition, and many children died due to its complications. Fortunately today it is a very different story and the illness is readily treated with antibiotics. Deaths and serious complications are exceedingly rare.

Symptoms of scarlet fever

Scarlet fever starts with a temperature.

The characteristic rash appears 12-24 hours after the start of the fever. The rash is red and makes the skin feel very rough. It is best described as feeling like 'sandpaper'. Sometimes the rash will particularly affect the skin creases at the elbows and knees, and around the groin. After this stage the skin will often start to peel.

Usually children look very flushed with scarlet fever, but the areas around the mouth and nose appear pale in comparison.

In most cases there is a sore throat. The tonsils are often inflamed and may be covered with pus. Symptoms like headaches, nausea or muscle aches can also occur.

For the first few days of illness the tongue may be coated with a thick white fur, and is often described as looking like a 'strawberry'. After a few days the fur will disappear and the tongue will look red and raw.

Often your doctor will be able to make a diagnosis of scarlet fever without any investigations. Sometimes throat swabs are taken to confirm the diagnosis.

Can it be treated?

Treatment is with a 10-day course of penicillin (or an alternative if allergic to penicillin) and symptoms usually clear up after a week. Antibiotics not only shorten the duration of the illness, but also reduce the risk of rare but serious complications such as pneumonia, meningitis and septicaemia.

Is it contagious?

Scarlet fever is very contagious. It is easily spread by direct contact with an infected person through coughing or sneezing, or sharing towels/flannels/bedding etc. Typically it takes two to five days for symptoms to appear after catching the infection.

After 24 hours of taking antibiotics you are no longer contagious.

For most people scarlet fever is a mild illness that they would fully recover from without any treatment. However, due to the risks of more worrying consequences it is important that a full course of antibiotics is taken.

If you are concerned that your child may have scarlet fever, I would advise making a prompt appointment to see your GP.

Dr Jessica Garner is a GP and health blogger. Visit her blog here.