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House Calls: What is fifth disease?

If you walk into our schools lately you may see children who look like they have been slapped on the cheeks. There is an illness called fifth disease, which is also known as slapped cheek disease.

There has been a greater number of cases in the schools recently due to this illness. Fifth disease is a viral illness caused by parvovirus disease. Many of you think of dogs when you hear the word “parvovirus”. But this illness cannot be caught from dogs. Fifth disease is also known as erythema infectiousum. It is a very common illness. In fact, almost 50 percent of adults have been infected with the virus as children.

Fifth disease generally occurs in children between the ages of four and 10. However, it can affect any age, even adults. The illness most commonly occurs during spring or winter. It usually starts with a fever, headache, runny nose, and fatigue. These symptoms make it difficult to diagnose because it mimics other illnesses. After about a week the illness is usually followed by a red rash on the cheeks giving them the slapped cheek appearance. After three to four days, a fine red rash may spread to the rest of the body. This rash may last up to 14 days and can come and go. The rash will worsen when the child gets hot or gets into a hot shower or bath.

Treatment for fifth disease includes fluids, Tylenol and rest. Some people may experience joint pain with this illness. If this is the case, ibuprofen may be warranted. The fifth disease virus is spread by respiratory secretions. This means when someone coughs or sneezes the virus is being spread. The best way to prevent spreading of the illness is practicing good hygiene. It is important to wash your hands frequently and cover your mouth when coughing.

Pregnant women should avoid contact with a patient who has fifth disease. The fifth disease virus can infect the fetus prior to birth. While no birth defects have been reported due to the illness, in 5 percent to 10 percent of infected women, the fetus may have severe anemia which can cause the baby to die. This is known as hydrops fetalis.

Fifth disease is a self-limiting illness that improves with time with little or no complications. However, because it is very contagious, a child with fifth disease will usually be sent home from school for three to seven days until the infection reduces down.

If you suspect that your child has fifth disease, you should keep him or her home from school or consult your physician.

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