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Kid's health: What is fifth disease?

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Fifth disease is a very common childhood illness. Although adults can get it, this disease usually occurs in children between the ages of five and fifteen. Fifth disease is so named because, historically, it was one of the five known childhood diseases that caused a rash.

Overview of fifth disease

Fifth disease is a viral infection caused by parvovirus B19. Parvovirus B19 is not the same parvovirus that infects canines and it cannot be spread between animals and humans. However, parvovirus B19 is highly contagious among humans and is spread through the air.

Although fifth disease is very contagious, there is good news. Laboratory tests on large populations indicate that a high percentage of adults have had the disease, but few remember experiencing symptoms. This fact has led medical experts to purport that in most cases, the symptoms were so mild that no treatment was even necessary.

Symptoms of fifth disease

After initial exposure to the virus, the first symptoms of fifth disease can take up to three weeks to appear after and are usually cold or flu-like in nature. Symptoms can include runny nose, headache, fatigue, or sore throat. These symptoms are usually not serious and they disappear within a few days. These symptoms are followed by a rash, which is a reaction caused by the immune system. The rash appears on the face first. Fifth disease is often called slapped-cheek disease because the rash causes extreme facial flushing. The rash then moves to the trunk and limbs where it often appears red and lacy and it may or may not be itchy. On average, the rash lasts no more than five days. However, for a few weeks following the initial outbreak, certain stimuli like strenuous exercise, sunlight, or stress may cause it to return.

By the time the rash appears the disease is no longer contagious. Interestingly, many individuals contract the disease and exhibit no symptoms at all and never feel sick.

Diagnosing and treating fifth disease

Most of the time, parents bring children to the doctor's office because of the rash and it is from this symptom that physicians are able to diagnose the disease. Doctors have the capability to diagnose fifth disease with blood tests although most find that it is not necessary. Generally, fifth disease is treated by over-the-counter medicines and bed rest, if necessary.

Fifth disease is a common childhood illness that most often appears in school-aged adolescents. The symptoms are generally mild and the disease usually resolves itself. Most people develop an immunity to fifth disease after contracting it once and are never infected again. The only people who really need to worry about this disease are people with blood disorders such as sickle-cell anemia or those with compromised immune systems.

References:

Laskey, Elizabeth. Fifth Disease. It's Catching Series. Oxford, UK: Heinemann Library, 2003.

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