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How to keep little ones safe from scarlet fever

It was once seen as a sickness that died out decades ago, but cases of the disease are at a 50-year-high. Here's what you need to know

Published 31/03/2016

Call the doctor: scarlet fever is more treatable now
Call the doctor: scarlet fever is more treatable now

As recent reports have highlighted, scarlet fever has made an alarming comeback. Like scurvy and rickets, it was thought of as a Victorian era concern, not something that anybody still needs to worry about, but cases have been steadily rising and are currently the highest they've been for five decades.

According to Public Health England, 6,157 children have been diagnosed since September, while 17,586 cases were reported in England during 2015, compared to 1,678 in 2005. In Northern Ireland, there were 363 cases in 2015, though that was a fall of 41% on 2014 when 625 cases were recorded. In 2013, Northern Ireland had 199 cases.

Experts aren't entirely sure why the disease has returned, but the good news is a lot has changed since the 1900s, when scarlet fever struck real fear.

So what do you need to know?

WHAT IS SCARLET FEVER AND WHO GETS IT?

Anyone can get scarlet fever, but young children are most affected. "It is a bacterial illness that is most common among children under the age of 10," says Dr Adam Simon, chief medical officer at PushDoctor.co.uk. "Symptoms include a sore throat, skin infection and the bright pink rash that gives the condition its name." This usually starts as red blotches before turning into a fine pinky-red rash that feels like sandpaper.

There may be a high temperature, headache and swollen tongue, too, usually in the day or two before the rash develops, and nausea and vomiting.

HOW DO YOU CATCH IT?

"It's highly contagious," notes Adam, "and can be passed by coughing, sneezing, skin-to-skin contact and handling contaminated objects, like bath towels or bedding." Most cases occur in winter and spring. Good hygiene - hand-washing, and avoiding sharing items - can help reduce spreading.

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU THINK YOUR CHILD HAS IT?

In the past, an outbreak of scarlet fever was very serious and children or families were often quarantined. It's still important it's properly diagnosed and treated, and that necessary steps are taken to avoid passing it on. "In the majority of cases, scarlet fever will clear up on its own, but it's always best to see a GP," says Adam.

HOW IS IT TREATED?

"The usual course of treatment is antibiotics, which will help you to recover more quickly, lower the amount of time you're contagious and reduce the risk of complications," says Adam. It's usually a 10-day course, and children should start feeling better after 24 hours, with symptoms clearing up after a few days (but it's still vital to complete the full course). Doctors generally advise that anybody infected stays home for at least 24 hours after starting on antibiotics, too.

CAN IT BE SERIOUS?

In the past, scarlet fever was a leading cause of infant death.

Better hygiene, and treatments, means it generally isn't the terrifying illness it used to be and, in the vast majority of cases, will clear up quite quickly and cause little more than a few days of feeling poorly, especially if treated properly. But as with many conditions, complications - ranging from mild to serious - can still potentially occur. "Complications are rare and especially easy to avoid if symptoms are spotted and treatment begun early. However, in some scarce cases, potential complications can occur, ranging from relatively simple issues like an ear infection, to blood poisoning and liver damage in more serious cases," notes Adam.

As ever, if you are concerned about your child's health, or if symptoms suddenly worsen or change, always get them checked with a doctor.

Belfast Telegraph

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