Scarlet fever symptoms in children – what parents need to know

Steve Iley
Medical Director at Bupa UK
06 February 2018

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This article is more than three years old. It reflects the best available evidence at the time of publication.

You may have seen in the news that cases of scarlet fever are at the highest levels since the 1960s. In the last week of January alone, 735 new cases were report in England.

With scarlet fever mainly affecting children between the ages of two and eight, this is a worrying prospect for parents. So as a Medical Director here at Bupa, I’ve put together some information and advice about scarlet fever in light of this recent news coverage.

What is scarlet fever?

Scarlet fever usually involves a sore throat, fever and rash. It generally follows on from a throat infection, caused by a type of bacteria called Streptococcus A.

The infection usually spreads from one infected individual to others through tiny droplets in the air. This means classrooms and nurseries (where children are in close contact) are places where the infection can spread easily.

What are the signs of scarlet fever?

The symptoms of scarlet fever usually start between one and four days after your child has been infected and include:

  • a sore throat
  • fever
  • headaches
  • chills
  • feeling sick

Then around 12–48 hours after the fever starts, a skin rash will appear, first on your child’s neck and then their body. The rash will make your child’s skin feel rough like sandpaper and will consist of pimples that are:

  • small
  • raised
  • reddish in colour

Another symptom of scarlet fever is what’s called ‘strawberry tongue’. This is when your child’s tongue is at first white with red inflamed parts (white strawberry tongue). Then, after four to five days, it goes red and shiny (red strawberry tongue). You can see how this looks in the photo below.

Photo of tongue in scarlet fever. Close-up of a rash on the tongue of a child with scarlet fever (scarlatina).

If you have a young child who’s poorly, be vigilant and look out for any of the above symptoms that could be linked to scarlet fever. If you think your child may have scarlet fever, contact your GP immediately for advice.

What should I do if my child has scarlet fever?

If your child has scarlet fever there are a few things you can do to help their recovery, and to stop the infection from spreading to other children.

Helping your child recover

  • If your child has scarlet fever their GP will prescribe them a course of antibiotics. Give your child the antibiotics as outlined by their GP, and make sure they complete the full course. This is really important as antibiotics can help clear the infection and prevent any further complications.
  • Make sure your child gets enough rest and drinks plenty of water to keep them hydrated. Your child’s body will be working hard to fight the infection, so making sure they get enough rest is really important.
  • Give your child pain relief medicines, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, if they need them to help ease their symptoms. Make sure you read the patient information leaflets that come with these medicines before giving them to your child.

Preventing scarlet fever from spreading

  • If your child has scarlet fever, don’t let them go into school or nursery for at least 24 hours after they start taking their antibiotics.
  • Make sure your child washes their hands regularly and encourage good hygiene at all times. This includes washing their hands in the morning and at the end of the day, after going to the toilet and before and after eating food. Washing your hands is an effective way to get rid of bacteria.

An infographic from Bupa UK on how to wash your hands properly

If your child has scarlet fever, they should feel better after one week. If after this time your child’s symptoms haven’t improved, see your GP as soon as possible for advice.

Becoming unwell or developing an injury can be disruptive to our busy lives; which is why our health insurance aims to help you get back on your feet sooner rather than later, so you can get back to doing the things you enjoy.

Steve Iley
Steve Iley
Medical Director at Bupa UK

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