Scarlet fever

What is scarlet fever and how do I tell if my child has it?

Is scarlet fever common?

People sometimes mistakenly believe that scarlet fever is a tropical disease but in fact it is common here in the UK.

For the last five years there has been around 14,000 reported cases of scarlet fever each season, however according to Public Health England this is now declining with 9,887 cases of scarlet fever reported since mid-September 2018.

The illness, also known as scarlatina, is highly infectious and strikes most commonly in children under the age of ten, although people of any age can get it.

It is caused by bacteria known as group A streptococcus (GAS) which are found on the skin and the throat. In the past it might have been a cause of infant death but these days it is easily treated with medication and antibiotics.

What are the symptoms of scarlet fever?

The most usual symptoms are a sore throat, high temperature and flushed, red cheeks which resemble sunburn, as well as a blotchy rash and swollen glands in the neck.

Scarlet fever is sometimes accompanied by vomiting, and a white coating on the tongue. Children who have recently had impetigo may later develop scarlet fever.

The rash usually starts on the chest or stomach before spreading to other areas. The blotches may join up leaving large red patches of skin, which turn white if you press a glass on them. The white coating on the tongue may peel off after a few days leaving it red and swollen – this is known as ‘strawberry tongue’.

Will scarlet fever go away on its own?

If scarlet fever is left untreated for too long, there may be complications from scarlet fever including ear and lung infections.

In severe cases, the illness may lead to pneumonia, meningitis and rheumatic fever, so it’s important to see a doctor as soon as you suspect your child has it, so appropriate antibiotics can be prescribed and taken as soon as possible

The quicker it is diagnosed, and medication prescribed, the faster your child will recover and the less likelihood there will be of complications.

GPs may take a throat swab or ask for a blood test to confirm their diagnosis.

To help with symptoms, in addition to the prescribed medication, the patient should be given cool drinks and soft food to eat that doesn’t irritate their throat.

Calamine cream and antihistamines can help with itching.

'When I took off his vest at bath time I got a shock'

Sara Jenkins-Wright thought her four-year-old son had a bad cold until she undressed him one evening and saw the rash on his chest. “He had been really grisly for a few days but there were lots of colds and sniffles at his nursery, so I thought it was just that,” Sara said.

“When I took off his vest at bath time, it was a real shock. His chest was red and blotchy. We rang 111 and from my description they told us it was probably scarlet fever but advised us to go to the doctor, and the GP confirmed it the following day. I had never heard of this illness before, so it gave us a bit of a fright.”

Her doctors prescribed antibiotics and her son was well again about a week later.

How do I stop other members of my family catching it?

Doctors say that because scarlet fever is contagious, tissues should be used to catch coughs and sneezes, and then quickly discarded, and families should avoid sharing towels or bed linen, if a child is infected.

Hands should be washed regularly to avoid spreading germs.

There is currently no vaccine for scarlet fever.

Further information

NHS — Scarlet Fever 

Baby Centre — Scarlet Fever

Patient Info — Scarlet Fever


This article was written for the Early Years Alliance by Dorothy Lepowska-Hudson and is for information purposes only. To get a diagnosis for you or your family, you should always consult a medical professional.