An Introduction to Scarlet Fever: A Contagious Childhood Disease

scarlet fever rash

Story at-a-glance -

  • Characterized by bright red rashes, fever and sore throat, scarlet fever is a transmissible illness caused by the Streptococcus bacteria — the same bacteria that cause strep throat
  • Learn important facts about scarlet fever, its hallmark symptoms, possible causes and the different treatment methods that may help reduce its impact on your life

Characterized by bright red rashes, fever and sore throat, scarlet fever, aka scarlatina, is a transmissible illness caused by the Streptococcus bacteria — the same bacteria that cause strep throat. Although it affects different age groups, it's more predominant in children ages 5 to 15, which is why it's considered a childhood disease.1

While it's a mild illness that is rarer and less threatening nowadays than it was in the past, a scarlet fever outbreak may still lead to severe complications if left untreated.2 To further understand this illness, let's first discuss what the Streptococcus bacterium is and how it affects your body.

Understanding the Streptococcus Bacteria

Scarlet fever is caused by Group A Streptococcus, a type of bacterium that can also cause strep throat and glomerulonephritis, a kidney disease that can occur in rare instances after you recover from certain throat or skin infections.3 The Streptococcus group of bacteria is divided into three groups: alpha-hemolytic, beta-hemolytic and no-hemolytic.

These groups are broken down further by letter grades A to V. The specific bacteria behind scarlet fever belong to the Gram-positive, beta-hemolytic group A Streptococcus, also called Streptococcus pyogenes, or group A strep (GAS). Pyogenes infections cause mild to severe illness, including:4

Pharyngitis

Scarlet fever (rash)

Impetigo

Cellulitis

Erysipelas (skin infection)

Necrotizing fasciitis

Myositis (inflammation of muscle tissue)

Toxic shock syndrome

Rheumatic fever

Acute glomerulonephritis

Group A strep is commonly found on the surface of the skin and inside the throat. It's usually passed from one person to another through direct contact with the open wounds, sores, mucus or bodily fluids of an infected person.5

Not everyone who carries these bacteria will become ill, though. A Streptococcal infection usually occurs if the bacteria get into your tissues, or if the infected person has a weakened immune system.6 Some strains of these bacteria can also produce an erythrogenic toxin, which will then cause the hallmark red-colored skin rashes of scarlet fever.7

Aside from scarlet fever, some of the other mild illnesses that group A strep may cause include strep throat, sinusitis and middle ear infections. There are also instances wherein a virulent strain of a different group of strep, Group B, aka Streptococcus agalactiae, may cause severe diseases such as neonatal pneumonia and sepsis, meningitis, vaginitis and endocarditis.8

The History of Scarlet Fever

Thanks to antibiotics and other modern treatment options, scarlet fever today is a fairly rare disease and considered a mild Streptococcal infection. It was a rare disease many centuries ago, too, in the 1600s — in fact, the first report of the disease was recorded in 1553. But during the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution gave rise to overcrowded, low-income urban areas, it emerged as one of the deadliest communicable diseases at the time.

The group A Streptococcus bacteria thrived in these unhygienic and congested cities, causing a spike in the occurrence of scarlet fever, which recurred in a cycle of epidemics, usually affecting children.9

In fact, 95 percent of the people who caught this infection in the U.S. state of Massachusetts during 1858 were children under the age of 15.10 In Britain, over 30 percent of scarlet fever cases were fatal, making it one of the deadliest diseases during the mid-19th century.11 These fatal cases continued into the early years of the 20th century.12

Researchers found that public health and hygiene play a key role in the development of scarlet fever. This helped lower its severity and recurrences, as people pushed for better living conditions and urban cleanliness.13 The mortality rate for scarlet fever significantly dropped during the 1950s. By 1980, scarlet fever diagnoses finally became uncommon.14

Unfortunately, this disease did not completely disappear. In fact, statistics show that cases of scarlet fever have steadily increased in some parts of the world since 2014, particularly in the U.K. and northeast Asia.15 Since it's still a threat to your and your family's health, you should be alert for scarlet fever outbreaks.

Avoid Falling Victim to Scarlet Fever With the Help of These Pages

Scarlet fever is a mild disease but it may cause serious health problems. Fortunately, with the right knowledge, you can prevent it from occurring, or at least reduce its severity If you do get it. Continue reading these pages to learn important facts about scarlet fever, its hallmark symptoms, possible causes and the different treatment methods that may help reduce its impact on your life.

MORE ABOUT SCARLET FEVER

Scarlet Fever: Introduction

What Is Scarlet Fever?

Scarlet Fever Symptoms

Scarlet Fever Causes

Scarlet Fever Treatment

Scarlet Fever Prevention

Scarlet Fever Diet

Scarlet Fever FAQ


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What Is Scarlet Fever?

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