Fifth Disease

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Fifth Disease

Topic Overview

What is fifth disease?

Fifth disease is a very common childhood illness. Adults can get it too. It is sometimes called “slapped-cheek disease” because of the rash that some people get on the face. You spread the disease by coughing and sneezing.

As a rule, people can spread fifth disease only while they have flu-like symptoms and before they get a rash. Some people who have fifth disease, such as those who have certain blood disorders or weak immune systems, may be able to spread the disease for a longer time.

What causes fifth disease?

Fifth disease is caused by a virus called human parvovirus B19.

What are the symptoms?

Early symptoms are similar to the flu—runny nose, sore throat, headache—and may be so mild that you don't notice them. The rash comes several days later, first on the face and later over the rest of the body. The rash usually fades within 5 days.

Some people, usually adults, also get pain in their joints. This can last for several weeks or even months. Some people may also have a headache.

Not all people with fifth disease get a rash or feel sick.

How is fifth disease diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose fifth disease by doing a physical examination and asking questions about your medical history. Fifth disease is easier to diagnose if you have the rash.

How is it treated?

Most people can treat this illness at home with rest, fluids, and pain relievers. Fifth disease usually goes away after a few weeks.

For a few weeks, the rash may come back when you are out in the sun, get too warm, or are under stress. This does not mean the disease is worse.

By the time the rash appears, you can no longer spread the disease to anyone else. As soon as your child gets a rash, he or she may return to school or daycare.

If you are pregnant or have a weak immune system or certain blood disorders, see your doctor. Fifth disease can cause problems for the fetus of a pregnant woman, but this is not common.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about fifth disease:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Symptoms

Early symptoms of fifth disease are similar to the flu. A distinctive rash follows several days later, and some people have joint pain. Fifth disease can be confused with other conditions with similar symptoms.

Symptoms similar to the flu

Symptoms of fifth disease arise within 2 to 3 weeks after exposure to the virus. Typically, the first symptoms resemble the flu and may be so mild that they are not noticed. Some people with fifth disease do not have any symptoms. Early symptoms include:

  • Runny nose and sore throat.
  • Headache and belly pain.
  • In rare cases, a mild fever around 37.8°C (100°F).
  • Mild body weakness and joint pain.

Rash

About 7 days after the person has symptoms that seem like the flu, a distinctive rash may appear, although not as often in adults as in children. Some people never get a rash.

If a rash develops, usually it follows a predictable pattern with two or three distinct stages:

  1. A bright red rash occurs on the sides of the face (often referred to as a "slapped-cheek" appearance) and sometimes on the forehead and chin. This rash usually fades within 2 to 5 days.
  2. Another rash appears on the neck, trunk, forearms, upper legs, and buttocks. This rash starts as round red spots and begins to take on a lacy look. It can be itchy, especially in older children. This second stage lasts a week or less.
  3. After the body rash fades, it may come back after the person is out in the sun, gets too warm, or is under stress. This rash lasts 1 to 3 weeks. Even though a rash comes back, it does not mean your illness is worse.

Joint pain

Joint pain in the hands, wrists, ankles, and feet commonly occurs in adults, especially in women. The pain usually lasts 1 to 3 weeks, although in rare cases, it can last longer. It usually does not cause permanent damage to the joints.

Complications

In healthy people, fifth disease usually is a mild illness that resolves within a few weeks without further problems. But people with impaired immune systems or blood disorders, such as sickle cell disease or thalassemia, are at increased risk for developing complications. Fifth disease can also cause problems for the fetus of a pregnant woman who is infected.

Examinations and Tests

A doctor usually diagnoses fifth disease by observing its distinctive rash, by asking about any history of exposure to the disease, and by doing a physical examination. Viral tests may be done to confirm a recent infection (within the past 3 months) by the presence of certain antibodies. Also, a complete blood count (CBC) may be done to help rule out a bacterial infection or to check for anemia.

Diagnosing fifth disease during pregnancy

A pregnant woman may have a blood test for parvovirus B19 antibodies if she is exposed to or has symptoms of fifth disease. The blood test may show that she has:

  • Had the disease in the past and is now immune.
  • Not had the disease in the past and does not have immunity. She should avoid exposure to parvovirus B19.
  • Recently contracted the disease and should be closely monitored throughout her pregnancy. This may include frequent fetal ultrasounds.

Treatment Overview

General treatment

For normally healthy people, home treatment (including rest, fluids, and pain relievers) is usually the only care needed for fifth disease. The reappearance of a rash does not mean the illness is severe or has become worse. The rash often reappears from exposure to sunlight, warm temperatures, or stress.

Antibiotics are not used to treat fifth disease, because the illness is caused by a virus rather than bacteria.

Treatment for high-risk groups

People who have impaired immune systems or certain blood disorders (such as sickle cell disease or thalassemia) are at high risk for complications from fifth disease. They need close monitoring by a doctor after exposure or if they develop symptoms of infection. Medical treatment for complications sometimes requires a hospital stay.

If you are pregnant and have been exposed to the virus that causes fifth disease, your doctor may recommend blood tests to see if you are infected or if you are immune. If you are infected, your doctor may recommend frequent fetal ultrasounds throughout your pregnancy to monitor your fetus's condition.

Preventing the spread of fifth disease

By the time the rash appears, you can no longer spread the disease to anyone else. After a child gets a rash, he or she may return to school or daycare.

People known to have fifth disease, including those who have complications, should take measures to prevent spreading the virus. It helps to wash your hands often. If people who have fifth disease are hospitalized, they may be isolated from other patients.

Home Treatment

For normally healthy people, home treatment for fifth disease consists of taking measures to keep them comfortable until their symptoms go away. Suggestions include:

  • Giving plenty of liquids to prevent dehydration.
  • Giving acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin) to reduce fever and to relieve headache and joint pain. Follow all directions on the label. If you give medicine to your baby, follow your doctor’s advice about what amount to give. Do not give ASA to anyone younger than 20 because of the risk of Reye syndrome, a rare but serious disease.
  • Preventing scratching. Trim your child's fingernails and have him or her wear gloves at night to help prevent scratching during sleep.
  • Having adults with joint pain and swelling rest and limit their activities.

The rash may itch more in adolescents and adults than in children. Some ways to help reduce itchiness include:

  • Taking oatmeal baths. For an oatmeal bath, place 1 cup uncooked oatmeal in a cotton cloth, tie it off, and cook it in boiling water until the oatmeal is soft. Use the bundled oatmeal as a sponge while bathing in lukewarm water. You can also use a store-bought oatmeal bath instead of home-prepared oatmeal.
  • Applying calamine lotion to the rash.
  • Taking a non-prescription antihistamine, such as Benadryl, which may help if the itching is very bothersome. Don't give these medicines to your child unless you've checked with the doctor first.
  • Wearing loose-fitting cotton clothing.

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

Canadian Paediatric Society
2305 Saint Laurent Boulevard
Ottawa, ON  K1G 4J8
Phone: (613) 526-9397
Fax: (613) 526-3332
Email: info@cps.ca
Web Address: www.cps.ca
 

The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) promotes quality health care for Canadian children and establishes guidelines for paediatric care. The organization offers educational materials on a variety of topics, including information on immunizations, pregnancy, safety issues, and teen health.


Canadian Paediatric Society
2305 Saint Laurent Blvd.
Ottawa, Ontario K1G 4J8
Canada
Phone: Phone: 613-526-9397
Fax: Fax: 613-526-3322
Email: info@cps.ca
Web Address: www.caringforkids.cps.ca
 

Caring for Kids is produced by the Canadian Paediatric Society, a national association that advocates for the health needs of children and youth


Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)
130 Colonnade Road
A.L. 6501H
Ottawa, ON  K1A 0K9
Phone: Telephone numbers for PHAC vary by region. For your regional number, go to the listing on the PHAC website at www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/contac-eng.php.
Web Address: www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/index-eng.php
 

The Public Health Agency of Canada (formerly the Population and Public Health Branch of Health Canada) is primarily responsible for policies, programs, and systems relating to disease prevention, health promotion, disease surveillance, community action, and disease control.


References

Other Works Consulted

  • Belazarian L, et al. (2008). Erythema infectiosum and parvovirus B19 infection section of Exanthematous viral diseases. In K Wolff et al., eds., Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, 7th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1855–1858. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Habif TP, et al. (2005). Erythema infectiosum (fifth disease). In Skin Disease: Diagnosis and Treatment, 2nd ed., pp. 268–269. Philadelphia: Elsevier Mosby.
  • Koch WC (2007). Parvovirus B19. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th ed., pp. 1357–1360. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
  • Salvaggio H, Zaenglein A (2010). Parvovirus infection. In MG Lebwohl et al., eds., Treatment of Skin Disease: Comprehensive Therapeutic Strategies, 3rd ed., pp. 533–535. Edinburgh: Saunders Elsevier.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Primary Medical Reviewer Donald Sproule, MD, CM, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Christine Hahn, MD - Epidemiology
Last Revised April 20, 2011

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