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Fifth Disease

As a pediatric nurse I see all kids of different illnesses and diseases in children. It is really amazing how fast one thing can spread between children when they are in close proximity. That is why it is important for parents to know some of the most common childhood illnesses and what to do when they suspect their child has something contagious. Fifth disease is one of those illnesses.

What is Fifth Disease?

Fifth disease is a viral illness that occurs most often in children between the ages of 5 and 15. Outbreaks tend to happen in late winter and early spring, though they can happen any time. Fifth disease is very contagious, though it doesn’t generally cause long term complications.

What are the symptoms of fifth disease?

There are many symptoms of fifth disease, many of which are the same symptoms kids get anytime they are sick. It usually starts with cold like symptoms (runny or stuffy nose), fever, and headache which last a few days. You may think the illness is over until a rash appears.

The rash usually starts on the face and is bright red, giving the child the appearance of slapped cheeks, which is characteristic of fifth disease. The rash then spreads down the trunk to the arms and legs, as the rash disappears, it takes on a lacy appearance. It can take 1 to 3 weeks for the rash to be completely gone and during this time certain irritants such as sun, heat, and exercise, can make the rash worse.

Other, less common symptoms, include diarrhea, sore throat, red eyes, and swollen glands. Older children and teens may also complain of joint swelling or pain most commonly in the wrists, knees, and ankles.

Fifth disease is very contagious before the rash appears, meaning that a child may be contagious before they show any symptoms. Any time your child develops a fever he or she should be considered contagious and kept home from school or daycare, no matter what illness your child may have.

There is no vaccine for fifth disease, and since a person is no longer contagious once the rash appears, there is no way to stop the spread. The best thing that can be done is to keep any child with a fever at home until they have been fever free for 24 hours and to wash your hands frequently, even if there is no one sick at home.

What is the treatment for fifth disease?

Because fifth disease is a viral infection there is no treatment. You cannot take antibiotics because they do not work for viruses, they only work for bacterial infections. Viruses have to run their course. Many children with fifth disease do not require any treatment other than treating a fever if they are uncomfortable and rest at home. Older children may complain of mild discomfort once the rash appears, but usually there is no need for treatment of the rash. Normal healthy children will not require hospitalization due to fifth disease like they sometimes do with other illnesses.

Are there any major complications with fifth disease?

With some childhood illnesses there is the rare occurrence of long-term complications, however with fifth disease there is virtually no risk. The biggest risk is for children who already have a compromised immune system such as those with AIDS or Leukemia or other blood disorders.

Fifth disease is one of the minor childhood illnesses. While having a child who is ill is no fun, it is often nice to know that you don’t have to worry too much, not that you will stop worrying any time soon.

Did your child ever have fifth disease?

Thanks for reading, Cassie

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