Fifth Disease

Your child came down with a mild cold a few days ago and now seems to have suddenly developed a rash. While this may appear alarming, he may just have a case of fifth disease.

What is Fifth Disease?
Fifth disease, also known as erythema infectiosum, is not actually a disease but a virus. It is caused by the parvovirus B19 and is characterized by a distinctive red rash. The rash occurs as a result of an immune system response to the parvovirus. However, this is not the same parvovirus that infects animals, especially dogs, and the virus cannot be passed between humans and animals.

Fifth Disease of Children
Children between the ages of five and 15 are most likely to be affected by this virus, although any person of any age can get the virus. Studies have shown, though, that at least 50% of the adult population has the parvovirus, yet most cannot recollect having any symptoms of the infection. Therefore, most experts believe that the majority of people will experience very mild symptoms or even be asymptomatic.

Symptoms of Fifth Disease
Cases of fifth disease tend to occur more frequently during late winter to early spring although a person can be infected at any point during the year. Generally, people infected with fifth disease will initially seem to just have a mild cold, with a low-grade fever, headache and a stuffy or runny nose.

However, a few days after these symptoms pass, a rash will develop on the face, which typically appears as though the person has slapped cheeks. This rash will then spread to the rest of the body although it may be lighter in appearance. As the rash begins to clear up, it will take on a lacy pattern. The rash may also begin to fade and then reappear before completely clearing up. Generally, it takes anywhere from one to three weeks for a rash to clear.

Children under the age of ten are more likely to develop a rash than others with fifth disease. Teens and adults who develop a rash may find the rash to be itchy. Others may notice that their rash is sensitive to certain things like heat, sunlight or stress. A sore throat, swollen glands, red eyes or diarrhea can also sometimes accompany the rash. It is not unusual for teens and adults to experience inflammation or pain in their joints, which can last up to a few months.

Passing it Around
Fifth disease is contagious and is spread by the fluid droplets expelled when you cough or sneeze as well as through the sharing of cups, glasses and cutlery. People who have never been infected before have at least a 50% chance of becoming infected if another member of their household is infected. School children have a slightly higher chance (up to 60%) of becoming infected when a classmate has fifth disease. However, once you have the virus, your body develops immunity to it, thereby preventing future infections.

People with fifth disease are the most contagious well before they develop their rash. Most people become sick within four to 14 days after exposure to the virus but it could take as many as 20 days for some people to develop symptoms. By the time your child has developed a rash, though, it is likely that she is no longer contagious.

Diagnosis and Treatment
Most health professionals are able to make a diagnosis of fifth disease based on the appearance of the rash. If it is necessary, a blood test can also be ordered to check for the presence of the parvovirus.

There are no treatments available for fifth disease and the infection usually clears up on its own. Children who have a fever may need some extra bed rest, while those who have an itchy rash can often have medication prescribed to relieve the irritation.

Very little can be done to prevent the spread of the parvovirus. The only recommended action is to frequently and properly wash your hands, which can help prevent the spread of many diseases and infections.

Complications and Prevention
The vast majority of people infected with fifth disease will develop no complications. Children who have a weakened immune system, such as those with leukemia or with certain blood disorders, can become seriously ill if they become infected with parvovirus B19. Fifth disease can lead to severe anemia in these people, which may require hospitalization and blood transfusions.

Fifth Disease in Pregnant Women
Complications may also occur in women who develop fifth disease during pregnancy.