Family Health Guide

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Rashes: Fifth Disease


Bright red cheeks that looked like they’ve been slapped are the hallmark of fifth disease, which usually strikes kids between the ages of 5 and 15. The illness begins with a low-grade fever and mild cold symptoms, usually lasting just a few days. The facial rash, which can sometimes itch, usually appears after these symptoms seem to be going away, and spreads from the face to the rest of the body, often sparing only a child’s palms and soles of the feet. The rash then develops a lacy appearance, and can take up to three weeks to clear. Older kids often get achy joints too. 


Fifth disease is caused by parvovirus B19, which usually makes the rounds in late winter and spring. It’s estimated that 40 to 60 percent of adults have contracted the virus at one point or another, and that only some people experience noticeable symptoms. 


A doctor can typically diagnose fifth disease by its lacy distinctive rash, but if there’s any doubt, he can perform a blood test to check for parvovirus B19. 


You can do your best to avoid parvovirus B19 by keeping your children’s hands clean with frequent washing and the use of sanitizer when no soap and water is available. Kids are contagious just before and during the flu-like symptoms, but usually don’t pass on fifth disease once they develop the rash, which is the body’s immune response to the virus. People who’ve had fifth disease once typically won’t get it again. 


There’s no cure for fifth disease. As with most mild viruses, rest may be all that’s prescribed. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used as directed to relive fever and aches. Your doctor may prescribe Benadryl (diphenhydramine) if the itching from the rash is severe. Children with weakened immune systems or certain blood disorders may require hospitalization, as they can develop severe or chronic anemia with parvovirus B19. 

Complementary/Alternative Treatments

Ensuring kids get adequate sleep and good nutrition through a well-rounded diet may keep their immune systems strong, helping to combat viruses.