Which? uses cookies to improve our sites and by continuing you agree to our cookies policy

Scarlet fever: what parents need to know

Be alert for signs and symptoms

The number of reported scarlet fever cases in the UK has risen again this year, prompting warnings from public health experts for parents to be vigilant.

Public Health England figures show that cases of scarlet fever in 2017 have increased by 12% compared with this time last year, and by 29% compared with this time two years ago.

This is the fourth year in a row that infections have shown a marked increase, since a sharp rise in the 2014 season. Outbreaks are usually highest between December and April, with late March to mid-April being the peak season.

Scarlet fever has been serious in the past, but is normally milder now. It is still highly contagious though, so knowing what to look for means you can seek treatment promptly from your GP, avoid possible complications, and help stop it spreading any further.

What are the symptoms of scarlet fever?

  • Sore throat
  • Headache
  • Temperature over 38.2°C
  • Flushed cheeks
  • Swollen tongue
  • Sandpapery rash

The pinky-red, itchy rash develops a couple of days after the other symptoms, and shows on the stomach and chest first. It has a rough sandpapery feel that makes it different from other rashes. The rash later spreads to the ears, neck, arms and legs.

The quickest way to detect a fever in your child is with a good digital thermometer. You can check our digital thermometer reviews to see which ones parents prefer.

Who is at risk?

It is mostly found in children of nursery or primary school age, but anyone can catch it. Scarlet fever primarily affects children under 10, with 88% of this season’s reported cases affecting that age group, and a spike in children aged between 1 and 4 years old.

It is possible to have it more than once, but it’s unlikely. The NHS advises that there is no evidence that it is a threat to unborn children, but if you are pregnant and have been in contact with someone with scarlet fever, it’s best to check with your GP.

How do you catch scarlet fever?

Scarlet fever is transmitted by breathing in droplets from the coughs or sneezes of an infected person, sharing towels, sheets and clothes, or touching the skin of someone with a streptococcal skin infection such as impetigo.

As it passes so easily between people, it can be a problem in schools or other places where children are close to each other. Public Health England advises that hand washing is the best way to avoid transmission.

Scarlet fever treatment

If you are concerned that your child is hot, check their temperature. If they develop the other symptoms listed above, it is best to see your GP to confirm the diagnosis and lessen the chance of it spreading.

If your child also has a severe headache, vomiting or diarrhoea, you should see the GP immediately.

Children diagnosed with scarlet fever are advised to stay at home during the infectious period, and should be able to return to school 24 hours after commencing antibiotic treatment.

Antibiotics will treat the disease and reduce the amount of time your child is infectious from 1-2 weeks to 24 hours.

Back to top