Fifth disease: What parents must know about this common kids' condition

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Fifth disease is not life-threatening but it is contagious and that means you'll have to take special care of your kid.

Take a close look at your baby’s face. Do you notice any bright red circular spots resembling a slapped cheek? If yes, then chances are he has fifth disease. Medically called erythema infectiosum, this is a moderately contagious viral infection. 

Common among school-aged kids, it thrives during winter and spring seasons in colder climates. You may notice that the rashes on his face look like other toddler rashes such as rubella or scarlet fever.

The symptomatic rashes of fifth disease begin with the appearance of bright red spots on the face. They give the impression that the child has just been slapped on his cheeks. Because of this, it is also sometimes called the slapped-cheek disease.  

Since it is contagious, it is passed through coughing or sneezing. In fact, a pregnant woman can also catch this disease, and it can be deadly for the foetus.

It causes almost 10 percent risk of miscarriage and the risk of severe anemia. That’s because fifth disease can stop the body from producing red blood cells. 

Today, we are going to analyse this medical condition at length and understand the ways to prevent and treat it.  

Fifth disease: All you need to know about this medical condition

As the name suggests, fifth disease was discovered after four rash-causing child illnesses were identified. These four include rubella, measles, scarlet fever, chickenpox, and roseola infantum.

Together with fifth disease, all these five diseases can be fatal for those with low immunity and children with blood disorders. Unlike the other four diseases, your doctor will recommend that you wait out fifth disease. This is because there is no medication that slows it down. 

But fifth disease is usually mild. It only spreads when an infected child coughs or sneezes. Because of this, the virus passes into the air as respiratory droplets and infects a healthy child. It can also be transmitted through blood.

What causes fifth disease? 

The parvovirus B19 causes this common childhood condition. As mentioned before, it spreads through respiratory secretions and even saliva and blood. 

Usually the disease lasts for a few weeks and the incubation period can last from four to 14 days. By the time the rash appears on the child’s cheek, he has already passed the majority of the condition. At this point, he is well enough to attend day care or school. 

Because the appearance of the slapped cheek comes in later, it becomes crucial to understand some common symptoms of the fifth disease. Yes, the slapped cheek rashes are not the only ones. 

fifth disease

By the time the rashes appear, the infection is no longer contagious, and you can send your kid to day care. | Image courtesy: Wikimedia

What are the common symptoms of the fifth disease? 

The symptoms of fifth disease mostly appear two to three weeks after the child contracts the infection.

Rashes on the face are the most distinctive symptom, but not all children who suffer from fifth disease develop rashes. Some have more uncommon symptoms as well. Here is what you need to watch our for if you suspect your child has contracted this infection:

  • Low-grade fever 
  • Nausea
  • Runny nose
  • Bright red cheeks (as if slapped)
  • Flat or raised itchy rashes on arms as well as legs. This rash might look faded from the centre and red on the periphery giving it a lacy appearance. 
  • Flat rashes that appear when you give your child a warm bath, after he exercises or when he rubs the skin
  • Less common symptoms such as headaches, joint pains and sore throat

All of these changes precede a typically symptom-free period of seven to 10 days. After this period, you will notice fifth disease progress in three phases.

  • Phase 1. You will notice the classic slapped-cheeks during this phase. It will last for about two to four days at most. 
  • Phase 2. In this phase you will notice that the same rash turns lacy towards the periphery. This will continue for a minimum of four days. 
  • Phase 3. In this final stage, the rash will keep coming back due to baths, exercises and scratching of skin.

Usually, the rashes that begin from the cheeks spread to the arms, legs and chest area. But by this time (three weeks), the infection would have almost passed and is no longer contagious. 

However, if you notice that the rash lasts for more than five weeks, has taken on the colour purple, or has become painful and looks like a blister, you must immediately inform your doctor. 

Adults who contract this infection must beware of the following symptoms. Remember that these are more severe and painful in adults, especially those with low immunity.

These signs generally precede a rash and show up after a week or 10 days time:

  • Headache 
  • Abdominal pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Joint pain
  • Sore throat 
  • Fever 

In case a pregnant women contracts fifth disease, her foetus remains unaffected. But if the foetus contracts the disease, it will be unable to produce red blood cells. This puts the unborn child at risk of anemia, heart failure, miscarriage and sometimes still birth.

fifth disease

Typically, the doctors can look at the rash and figure out if it is erythema infectiosum, or fifth disease. | Image courtesy: Wiki commons

How is fifth disease diagnosed?

Once you notice any of the symptoms, rush your kid to the doctor immediately. Most of the time, the doctors can just look at the rash and figure out if it is fifth disease.

Your kid may also be tested for specific antibodies. This is especially true if your kid has low immunity or anemia or feels very ill.

Similarly, if you are pregnant and you develop any of the symptoms, the doctor may check you for fifth disease. 

The good news is that like other toddler rashes, erythema infectiosum can also be treated. 

How do you treat fifth disease?  

This medical condition usually goes away without being treated. However, if the symptoms are severe or painful, your child may need medication. 

  • If he complains of joint pain, fever or headache, he will be prescribed nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or an acetaminophen like Tylenol or ibuprofen. However, you should only give these two medications if your doctor has given a green signal.  
  • Just as is the case in a regular viral fever, drinking plenty of fluids is important. So keep fresh juices as well as warm drinking water handy. 
  • You will also have to make your child get ample rest. Even with such a condition, your child may feel fine and want to play outside. But since fifth disease is contagious, try to keep your child away from other kids till he recovers. And most importantly give him enough rest to completely recuperate. 
  • Maintain hygiene at home. Wash your hands as well as your child’s hands often. Keep him at home till he recovers. When you notice the rash, your child can get back to his day care or school.
  • If your child has a weak immune system, he may have to visit the doctor a few more times for physical checkups. Similarly, if you’re pregnant with a weak immune system or are anemic, the same rules apply to you as well. 

By now, you may have gathered that fifth disease, or erythema infectiosum, is not life-threatening. It is actually benign and therefore, you can rest assured that it will not have a life-long impact on your kid. 

However, if your child’s immune system is already weak, or he has HIV, or has undergone chemotherapy, your child will likely be under the care of a doctor. He will be kept under observation until he recovers completely.

Similarly, an adult suffering from anemia will need special medical care. This is equally true for pregnant women. Fifth disease can harm an unborn child if left untreated. If necessary, your unborn child might even need a blood transfusion. But as we mentioned earlier, this will only happen in rare cases. 

But you can prevent all this by preventing fifth disease. 

How do you prevent fifth disease? 

This medical condition can be prevented with simple measures that you can take at home.

Since it is airborne, minimise your child’s interaction with those who sneeze or cough often.

Make sure to maintain proper hygiene and wash your child’s hands often. Encourage clean eating habits and make sure to teach him how to use a handkerchief when he coughs or sneezes. 

Remember that fifth disease is not a life-threatening infection, and you can tame it quite early. In fact, in most cases, treatment isn’t even necessary. But that doesn’t mean you can ignore its signs. 

Keep a tab on your child’s activities and the people he interacts with. Teach him about cleanliness and proper physical hygiene and allow him ample rest so he recovers fast. 

Sources: Webmd, healthline

Also read:Baby acne and rashes: 5 Common types and their proper treatment

(Lead & feature image courtesy: NHS.UK)