It’s one of five common contagious childhood ailments that cause fever and a rash. After doctors figured out what to call measles, rubella, roseola, and scarlet fever, they apparently ran out of catchy names and called the fifth disease just that. Its technical name is erythema infectiosum, but the illness does have a more colorful moniker: “slapped-cheeks disease.” That’s because after the contagious period has passed, children with fifth disease often develop an angry red rash on their cheeks. This fades to a pink lacy pattern as it spreads to the torso, arms, thighs, and buttocks. Physical activity or bathing can worsen the rash, which may itch. Occasionally a child may have joint pain with the rash, requiring medical attention.
The actual illness precedes the rash by seven to 10 days and is usually so mild that parents barely take note of it. Its symptoms include a fever (usually below 103 degrees F) that may be accompanied by a headache, reddish eyes, fatigue, and a sore throat. In some cases, however, there are no symptoms at all.
If you catch fifth disease from your child, you may experience joint pain and swelling for as long as a few weeks. These symptoms can be dramatic, but they aren’t permanent.
What Causes Fifth Disease?
Fifth disease is the work of the human parvovirus, which can also cause arthritis. It’s most common in children who are between the ages of 5 and 14, and it usually strikes during the late winter or early spring.
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