What is scarlet fever?
Scarlet fever is an uncommon infection caused by a type of bacteria called
Streptococcus pyogenes, also known as group A streptococci. As well as
scarlet fever, these bacteria can cause a range of other conditions, including
throat infections and tonsillitis, skin infections (impetigo), wound infections,
and acute rheumatic fever.
The disease most commonly presents in children or adults with a “strep
throat” infection or tonsillitis, followed by the development of a skin rash. It is
not considered highly contagious and the infection is very treatable with
antibiotics. Most children will recover fully within a week or so. Deaths from
scarlet fever are now extremely rare.
How is scarlet fever spread?
The bacterium is found in the nose and/or throat of infected persons and can
be spread to other people by:
coughing or sneezing (by breathing in droplets containing the
direct contact with an infected person, where bacteria may be
transferred by kissing or on hands.
sharing food or drink with an infected person.
What are the signs and symptoms?
sore throat and fever (high temperature) are the typical first
a bright red (scarlet) rash then soon develops. This is caused by a
toxin (poison) that is released into the blood stream by the
the rash starts as small red spots, usually on the neck and upper
chest. It soon spreads to many other parts of the body and may feel
like sandpaper. The rash tends to blanch (go white) if you press on it.
The face is usually spared by the rash, but may become quite
the tongue may become pale but coated with red spots ('strawberry
tongue'). After a few days the whole tongue may look red.
other common symptoms include: headaches, nausea and vomiting,
being off food, and feeling generally unwell.
Infected children should be excluded from child care or school until they are
well, and at least 24 hours after starting antibiotic treatment.
How long does it take to develop?
The time between exposure (contact with the sick person) and getting sick is
on average 1-3 days.
How long is it infective?
People with scarlet fever can spread the disease to others until around 24
hours after commencing antibiotic treatment.
Who is at risk?
anyone can be infected with group A streptococci, but scarlet fever is
more likely to occur in young and primary school-aged children.
people living in the same household.
people in close contact with an infected person who is coughing or
How is scarlet fever diagnosed?
A swab from the back of the throat is usually taken to confirm the diagnosis.
How is scarlet fever treated?
Treatment is important, and consists of a course of antibiotics (usually
penicillin) to kill the bacterium and prevent serious complications that are
sometimes associated with group A streptococcal infections, including heart
(rheumatic fever) and kidney disease.
What you can do?
paracetamol may be given to reduce high temperature (fever) and to
relieve a sore throat
see your doctor. If your doctor prescibes antibiotics it is important to
complete the course.
How can spread of scarlet fever and “strep throat” be prevented?
cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing
wash your hands after wiping or blowing your nose, coughing and
wash hands before preparing food
see your doctor if you or your child have symptoms of sore throat and
wash your hands after touching soiled tissues.
For further information – Contact your local Public Health Unit.