Spotting Scarlet Fever Symptoms

The UK is currently experiencing its worst outbreak of scarlet fever in 40 years, so now is a good time to learn more about this contagious illness, especially if you’re a parent, teacher or childcare worker. Scarlet fever usually affects children (though can infect adults too) and can be distressing. While it was a serious illness in the past, today it is treatable and complications are rare. Scarlet fever is highly contagious, however, and spreads in tiny droplets found in the breath, coughs and sneezes. It’s important to recognise scarlet fever symptoms quickly so you can prevent it from spreading further, and to be prescribed the necessary antibiotics.

Scarlet fever symptoms

Diagram of girl with scarlet fever symptoms, including reddened cheeks and a rash on the body

The first signs of scarlet fever can be flu-like symptoms, including a high temperature of 38C or more, and swollen glands in the neck, indicated by a large lump on the side of the neck. However, scarlet fever can most easily be identified by the rash that appears a few days later:

  • A pink-red rash appears on the body, often starting on the torso before spreading. This looks like sunburn with bumps and has a texture like sandpaper. This is sometimes itchy
  • A white coating sometimes appears on the tongue. This peels off, leaving the tongue red and swollen
  • The rash doesn’t spread to the face but the cheeks can be flushed

Other symptoms include:

  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches

What should you do?

If you suspect that you, your child, or a child under your care has scarlet fever, you should minimise contact between the infected person and others. For example, don’t continue going into work or sending the child to school. Call a GP before going to the doctor’s surgery in person, as scarlet fever is very contagious. Don’t go to the hospital as this is unnecessary and will put others at risk.

Your GP will prescribe antibiotics, which will significantly shorten the duration of the illness and reduce the risk of complications.

How long does recovery take?

With antibiotic treatment, the sufferer will only be infectious for 24 hours after their initial tablet. Otherwise, the infectious period lasts for 2 weeks after symptoms start. Without treatment, as well as being infectious for much longer, the sufferer also runs the risk of developing complications. This means seeing a GP and getting antibiotics is very important.

Complications are rare, but can include:

  • Ear infection
  • Throat abscess
  • Pneumonia
  • Meningitis
  • Rheumatic fever

If the sufferer doesn’t get better within a week of starting treatment, or is ill again in the weeks after the fever has cleared up, arrange another visit to the GP to ensure there aren’t any complications. The skin can peel for a few weeks after all the other symptoms have subsided.

When it comes to scarlet fever, there’s little parents can do other than keep their child at home and contact a GP. But there’s many other illnesses and injuries which can be treated with first aid. We encourage all parents to learn about protecting their children with first aid training. Take a look at our 1 day first aid for children course.