Overview of fifth disease
A virus causes fifth disease. It often results in a red rash on
the arms, legs, and cheeks. For this reason, it’s also known as “slapped cheek
disease.” It’s fairly common and mild in most children, but it can be more
severe for pregnant women or anyone with a compromised immune system.
Most doctors advise their patients to wait out the symptoms
because currently there’s no medication that will shorten the course of the
disease. However, if you have a weakened immune system, your doctor may need to
closely monitor you until the symptoms disappear.
What causes fifth disease?
Parvovirus B19 causes fifth disease. The virus tends to spread
through saliva and respiratory secretions among children who are in elementary
school. It’s most
prevalent in the winter and spring, but it can spread at any time and among
people of any age.
Many adults have antibodies that prevent them from developing
fifth disease because of previous exposure during childhood. However, when people
do become infected as adults, the symptoms can be severe. If you get fifth
disease while pregnant, there are serious risks, including life-threatening
anemia, for your unborn baby.
For children with healthy immune systems, fifth disease is a
common, mild illness that rarely presents lasting consequences.
What are the symptoms of fifth disease?
The initial symptoms of fifth disease are very general. They
- low-grade fever
- sore throat
After a few days of having these symptoms, most young people
develop a red rash that first appears on the cheeks. The rash often spreads to
the arms, legs, and trunk of the body within a few days. The rash may last for
weeks, but usually by the time you see it you’re no longer contagious.
The rash is more likely to appear in children than in adults with
fifth disease. In fact, the main symptom adults usually experience is joint
pain. The joint pain can last for several weeks and is usually most prominent
in the wrists, ankles, and knees.
How is fifth disease diagnosed?
Often, doctors can make the diagnosis just by looking at your
skin rash. Your doctor may test you for specific antibodies if you’re likely to
face serious consequences from fifth disease. This is especially the case if
you’re pregnant or if you have a compromised immune system.
How is fifth disease treated?
For most healthy people, no treatment is necessary. If your
joints hurt or you have a headache or fever, you may be advised to take
acetaminophen (Tylenol) as needed to relieve these symptoms. Otherwise, you’ll
need to wait for your body to fight off the virus, which usually takes one to
You can help the process along by drinking a lot of fluids and
getting extra rest. Children can often return to school once the red rash
appears since they’re no longer contagious.
What can be expected in the long term?
For most healthy patients, fifth disease has no long-term
consequences. However, if your immune system is weakened due to AIDS,
chemotherapy for cancer, or other conditions, you’ll likely need to be under a
doctor’s care as your body attempts to fight off fifth disease.
In particular, you’ll likely need medical attention if you have
any type of anemia. This is because fifth disease can stop your body from
producing red blood cells, which can reduce the amount of oxygen that your
tissue gets. This is especially likely in people with sickle cell anemia. If you
have sickle cell anemia, you should see a doctor right away after being exposed
to fifth disease.
Fifth disease can harm your unborn baby, so it can be dangerous
to develop the condition if you’re pregnant. Fifth disease can also lead to anemia
in your unborn child, which can be life-threatening for them. If necessary,
your doctor may offer you a blood transfusion to help protect your unborn
How can fifth disease be prevented?
Since fifth disease usually spreads from one person to another
through airborne secretions, you should try to minimize contact with people who
are sneezing, coughing, or blowing their noses. Washing your hands frequently
can also help reduce the chances of contracting fifth disease. For a person with an intact immune system, once you’ve
contracted this virus, you are considered immune for life.