Scarlet fever, also called “scarlatina”, is caused by Group A streptococcus (group A strep), a bacterium commonly found in the throat and on the skin. These bacteria also cause strep throat. Scarlet fever often appears as a rash and is accompanied by a high fever and a strawberry-like appearance of the tongue. The illness is most common among children aged 5 to 18 years, but adults can also become infected.
Scarlet fever bacteria are transferred from person to person through contact with the droplets of an infected person’s cough and sneeze. If you touch your eyes, nose or mouth after coming into contact with these fluids, you may be at risk for contracting scarlet fever.
Symptoms of scarlet fever include a very red, sore throat; a fever of 38.3º C (101º F) or higher; a red rash with a sandpaper-like feel; swollen glands in the neck; and a whitish coating on the surface of the tongue, giving it a strawberry-like appearance because the normal bumps on the tongue look bigger. Symptoms of scarlet fever usually begin one to four days after exposure to the bacteria. Approximately one to four days after the onset of illness, the characteristic skin rash will appear. The rash usually lasts for two to seven days after which the skin may peel.
Other less common symptoms include headache, nausea, vomiting, and body aches.
Complications as a result of untreated scarlet fever are rare and include rheumatic heart disease and kidney damage, also known as post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis.
It is important for infected individuals and those around them to wash their hands often and to avoid sharing eating utensils, linens, towels, or other personal items that could come into contact with bodily fluids. There is no vaccine to prevent scarlet fever or strep throat.
Scarlet fever is treated with prescription antibiotics, which fight bacterial infections. It is important to follow your doctor’s dosage instructions and to never share any prescription medications.
Patients are usually no longer infectious 24 hours after starting antibiotics; however, the full course of antibiotics should be taken.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) does not monitor cases of scarlet fever because it is not an invasive infection. An invasive infection is one where bacteria infect a part of the body not normally infected by bacteria, such as the bloodstream, muscles, and joints.
PHAC recommends frequent use of personal hygiene measures to prevent the spread of infection, and advises seeking medical attention as needed.