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Scarlet fever

scarlet; fever; ;

Scarlet fever is an illness caused by bacteria (germs) that usually just cause an infection of the throat ('strep' throat). A streptococcal ('strep') sore throat is a bacterial infection of the throat and tonsils. The symptoms include fever, sore throat and tender, swollen glands in the neck.

Toxins (poisons) that are sometimes released by the bacteria may cause scarlet fever and also may cause damage to other parts of the body.

Scarlet fever is one set of symptoms that can appear when a child is infected by Streptococcus A.

  • The most common symptoms of scarlet fever are the sudden onset of a sore throat, tender and swollen lymph glands in the neck, a high fever, vomiting, and a rash covering the whole body.
  • The rash consists of tiny red spots, a bit like sunburn. It’s usually rough and a bit bumpy, like sandpaper.
  • Your child’s tongue might also turn bright red. This is sometimes called a ‘strawberry tongue’.

Untreated people remain infectious for 2 to 3 weeks after becoming ill. Treated people are infectious for about 24 hours after appropriate antibiotic treatment begins.

Rarely the toxin may cause

  • Rheumatic fever (causing damage to the heart)
  • Glomerulonephritis (damage to the kidneys).
  • Quinsy - an abcess (collection of pus) next to a tonsil - may also occur.

The bacteria causing the infection need to be treated with antibiotics (often penicillin) to prevent these complications.

More information

Raising Children Network  

Department of Health (South Australia) - Communicable Disease Control Branch  

Better Health Channel (Victoria) 

What you can do

  • Any child with the signs of scarlet fever should be seen by a doctor straight away. People with scarlet fever need to treated with antibiotics to prevent other complications.
  • Paracetamol or ibuprofen may be given for the high temperature and sore throat (see the topic 'Using paracetamol or ibuprofen').
  • Give lots of drinks.
  • Encourage rest while the child is unwell.
  • Apply calamine lotion or another soothing lotion to the rash if it is uncomfortable.

The topic 'Feeling sick' has suggestions for caring for a sick child.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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