Resembling a bad sunburn, a scarlet fever rash is made up of close clusters of tiny red bumps that start on the neck and face, spreading downward to the back, chest, arms and legs. The rash will leave a ring of normal-looking skin around the mouth and red streaks in the skin folds, and be itchy. Kids with scarlet fever may also have a whitish tongue; a sore, red throat, sometimes with red spots or white patches; a fever over 101; and swollen glands.
Scarlet Fever, also known as scarlatina, is most common in school-age kids. It is caused by group A streptococcus bacteria, also the cause of strep throat, which is why kids with a scarlet fever rash usually have a bad sore throat too. Rarely, children with the streptococcal skin infection impetigo can also develop a scarlet fever rash.
Doctors can gently and quickly swab a child’s throat and send the material to a laboratory to test for strep, which can confirm that a rash is indeed scarlet fever.
A scarlet fever rash itself isn’t contagious, but the bacteria causing it can be spread through sneezing and coughing. (If the rash is linked with impetigo, however, a child can pick up the infection through touching an affected child’s skin.) Kids can easily pass the streptococcus bacteria to one another, so it’s important that children don’t share food, drinks or toys with an infected child until he’s been fever-free for at least 24 hours. Keep hands clean with frequent hand washing or sanitizing, especially during the colder months, when strep tends to spread.
Antibiotics can kill strep bacteria, which will ease rash, fever, and throat symptoms. You can also give a child acetaminophen or ibuprofen to bring down a fever and reduce throat and swollen gland pain.
A warm (but not hot) bath containing oatmeal, like Aveeno, might calm an itchy scarlet fever rash. Cool, non-acidic drinks and cold, soft foods like ice cream and yogurt will feel good on a sore throat.
“I was giving my son a bath, and I noticed he had a bright red rash across his torso. He'd also had a slight fever for the last day, and something in the back of my brain just clicked -- red rash, fever…could that be scarlet fever? So I brought him to the pediatrician the next day and sure enough they diagnosed him with streptococcus. They gave me some antibiotics and it went away pretty quickly.”—Alyssa Shaffer, mom to Nolan, 5