What is fifth disease?

Fifth disease in children: Overview

Fifth disease is a viral illness that is common in children. It is also known as "slapped cheek disease" because of the red rash some children develop on their faces. Fifth disease is spread mostly by coughs and sneezes. By the time the rash appears, your child can no longer spread the disease to anyone else. After being infected with this virus, your child cannot get it again.

Fifth disease can cause symptoms similar to the flu. Your child may have a runny nose, sore throat, headache, belly pain, and achy joints. A few days later, a bright red rash may appear on their cheeks and then may appear on the rest of the body. The rash may last for 7 to 10 days. The rash may come and go for several weeks.

Home care, such as rest, fluids, and pain relievers, is usually the only care needed for fifth disease. Doctors do not use antibiotics to treat fifth disease, because it is caused by a virus rather than bacteria.

Talk with your doctor if your child has any form of long-term anemia and is exposed to fifth disease. Fifth disease can make anemia worse.

Fifth disease

Fifth disease (erythema infectiosum) is a contagious and usually mild viral illness that is common in children. Early symptoms of fifth disease are like flu symptoms, which are then followed by a rash on the face that looks like slapped cheeks and a lacy pink rash on the backs of the arms and legs, torso, and buttocks.

This illness is most contagious the week before the rash appears. After the rash has started, the child usually is no longer contagious. The rash may come and go for several weeks in response to changes in temperature and sunlight.

Home treatment with rest, fluids, and pain relievers can help keep the child comfortable.

Fifth disease, although usually a mild illness in children, poses a slight risk to developing fetuses. Exposure to the disease during pregnancy should be avoided, if possible. If you are exposed to a child who has fifth disease while pregnant or if you develop a rash like that caused by fifth disease, you should contact your doctor.

Fifth disease rash

Fifth disease rash on face, with close-up of second-stage body rash.

Fifth disease (erythema infectiosum) is sometimes called "slapped-cheek disease" because of the rash that some people get on the face.

A bright red rash occurs on the cheeks, and then the rash may appear on the rest of the body. The rash may last for 7 to 10 days.

The rash on the body starts as round red spots and begins to take on a lacy look. It can be itchy, especially in older children. The rash may come and go for several weeks. Even though a rash comes back, it does not mean the illness is worse.

How is fifth disease diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose fifth disease by doing a physical exam and asking questions about your medical history. The disease is easier to diagnose if you have the rash.

Tests aren't usually needed, but they may be done in some cases to confirm that you have fifth disease.

How can you care for your child who has fifth disease?

  • Be safe with medicines. Have your child take medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think your child is having a problem with a medicine.
  • Make sure your child gets extra rest while your child has symptoms of fifth disease.
  • Have your child drink plenty of fluids. Fifth disease symptoms can dry out your child's body. If your child has kidney, heart, or liver disease and has to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids your child drinks.
  • Give acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) for fever or pain. Read and follow all instructions on the label. Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20. It has been linked to Reye syndrome, a serious illness.
  • Help your child avoid scratching the rash. If the rash itches:
    • Add a handful of oatmeal (ground to a powder) to your child's bath. Or you can try an oatmeal bath product, such as Aveeno.
    • Ask your child's doctor if your child can take an over-the-counter antihistamine.
    • Have your child wear loose-fitting cotton clothing.

What is fifth disease?

Fifth disease is a very common childhood illness. Adults can get it too. It is sometimes called slapped-cheek disease because of the rash that some people get on the face. You spread the disease by coughing and sneezing.

Fifth disease is usually a mild illness that lasts a few weeks. It can be more serious for people with weak immune systems or blood disorders, such as sickle cell disease. It can also cause problems for a developing fetus if exposure to the illness occurs during pregnancy. But this isn't common.

What causes fifth disease?

Fifth disease is caused by a virus called human parvovirus B19. (Only humans can catch and spread fifth disease. Although there are other parvoviruses that infect animals, you cannot catch these from your pet or any other animal.)

As a rule, people can spread fifth disease only while they have flu-like symptoms and before they get a rash. Usually, by the time the rash appears, you can no longer spread the disease to anyone else. Some people, such as those who have weak immune systems or blood disorders, may be able to spread the disease for a longer time.

Fifth disease in children: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child feels weak and tired and has pale skin.
  • Your child has a fever, fast breathing, and a racing heart, and has no energy.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child does not get better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.