Scarlet Fever: UK government warns of rise in Victorian illness and these are the symptoms to look out for

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The NHS and the UK Health Security Agency have begun issuing more advice on scarlet fever after “unseasonably high numbers”.

A bacterial illness that was commonplace during Victorian times has seen a steep rise in cases over the past month. Scarlet fever is a contagious infection that can affect people of any age however is more commonplace in children under the age of 10 - leading the UK Health Security Agency to issue guidance for school, nurseries and other childcare settings.

A rise in cases of the illness was first seen in Scotland, with NHS Borders confirming they are monitoring "unseasonably high numbers of scarlet fever in the community" after an increase in transmission between schoolchildren. The Government indicated that this rise is a “"likely result of the withdrawal of measures implemented during the coronavirus pandemic to reduce transmission".

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Those withdrawals of measures stem from the general advice given during lockdown measures to seek medical attention or see a GP if only necessary; the early signs of Scarlet Fever have similar traits to the early stages of coronavirus which may have led some to confuse the two before the characteristic red rash developed.

The NHS guidance for preventing the spread of scarlet fever includes measures such as washing your hands often with soap and water, using tissues to trap germs from coughs or sneezes, bin used tissues as quickly as possible and not to share cutlery, cups, towels, clothes, bedding or baths with anyone who has symptoms of scarlet fever.

The Government first issued guidance regarding Scarlet Fever in 2019 when there was an increase in transmission rates and despite the illness now treatable through antibiotics, it is considered a notifiable disease - a disease that must be informed by health care professionals to local health protection teams in the event of suspected cases.

What are the symptoms of Scarlet Fever?

The UK Health Security Agency issued the following information regarding the symptoms of Scarlet Fever.

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  • The first symptoms of scarlet fever often include a sore throat, headache, fever, nausea and vomiting.
  • After 12 to 48 hours the characteristic fine red rash develops (if you touch it, it feels like sandpaper). Typically, it first appears on the chest and stomach, rapidly spreading to other parts of the body. On more darkly-pigmented skin, the rash may be harder to spot, although the ‘sandpaper’ feel should be present
  • fever over 38.3º C (101º F) or higher is common
  • white coating on the tongue which peels a few days later, leaving the tongue looking red and swollen (known as ‘strawberry tongue’)
  • swollen glands in the neck
  • feeling tired and unwell
  • flushed red face, but pale around the mouth. The flushed face may appear more ‘sunburnt’ on darker skin
  • peeling skin on the fingertips, toes and groin area, as the rash fades

What should I do if I have scarlet fever?

Scarlet fever usually clears up after a week, but it is advisable to visit your GP to get a full diagnosis and proper treatment. The NHS have advised that relief of symptoms ahead of a treatment of antibiotics can be achieved by:

  • drinking cool fluids
  • eating soft foods if you have a sore throat
  • taking painkillers like paracetamol to bring down a high temperature (do not give aspirin to children under 16)
  • using calamine lotion or antihistamine tablets to ease itching
  • How long scarlet fever lasts
  • Scarlet fever lasts for around 1 week.

You can spread scarlet fever to other people up to 6 days before you get symptoms until 24 hours after you take your 1st dose of antibiotics. If you do not take antibiotics, you can spread the infection for 2 to 3 weeks after your symptoms start.

If in doubt ahead of seeing a GP, you can also contact the NHS’s 111 service for more information if you think you are suffering the early signs of scarlet fever.

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