Scarlet Fever

Last Updated March 2021 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Robert "Chuck" Rich, Jr., MD, FAAFP

What is scarlet fever?

Scarlet fever is a bacterial infection. The disease used to be more common and severe, but now it is treatable. However, it can cause harmful health problems if left untreated. Scarlet fever is linked to a rash, hence the name “scarlet.”

Symptoms of scarlet fever

Children ages 5 to 15 are at greatest risk of getting scarlet fever. Symptoms often begin within 1 or 2 days of infection. The most common symptoms are fever, sore throat, and a rash. The rash can cover your neck, chest, arms, and legs. It consists of small, rough, red bumps that can peel.

You may have other symptoms, such as:

  • Chills
  • Swollen tongue, tonsils, or glands
  • White coating or red bumps on tongue
  • Stomach pain
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

What causes scarlet fever?

Group A streptococcus bacteria causes scarlet fever. This is the same infection that causes strep throat and can lead to rheumatic fever. Scarlet fever spreads through contact with an infected person or their germs.

How is scarlet fever diagnosed?

Visit your doctor right away if you think you have scarlet fever. They will do a physical exam and review your symptoms. They also will swab your throat or do blood work to check for a strep infection.

Can scarlet fever be prevented or avoided?

There is no vaccine for scarlet fever. The only way to prevent it is to avoid sick people. This way you reduce your risk of catching the infection. If you have scarlet fever, you should stay home from work or school and avoid travel.

Scarlet fever treatment

If you have scarlet fever, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. These will kill the bacteria in your body. They will make you not contagious after 24 hours. Make sure you take all of the medicine to get rid of the infection.

Living with scarlet fever

With treatment, you can recover from scarlet fever. The rash may take a few weeks to go away.

If you have scarlet fever and do not treat it, you’re at risk. It can lead to rheumatic fever, which can cause serious health problems. Complications are rare, but can include kidney, liver, or heart damage. You may get an ear, sinus, or skin infection, pneumonia, or arthritis. In rare cases, the bacteria can enter the bloodstream. This can cause sepsis, which is a life-threatening infection.

Call your doctor if your condition does not improve after 24 hours of treatment or if you get new or worse symptoms.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What is my risk of getting scarlet fever if I have or have had strep throat?
  • How long do I have to take antibiotics?
  • If I’ve had scarlet fever once, can I get it again?