What is Fifth Disease?

The school bus comes to a stop as it does every school day. The doors open and you see your child stepping down the stairs and out of the folding doors. The bounce that’s usually in their step is gone though, and they don’t light up like they normally do upon seeing you. On a closer glance, you can see their face and cheeks are red as if they’ve been slapped. They’re complaining of a headache, upset stomach, and even some pain in their joints. You know that they’ve been sniffly for a few days, but you’ve never seen a cold affect them like this. You rush them to a pediatrician, only to find that they have fifth disease.

Fifth disease, or, academically known as Erythema infectiosum, is a mild rash illness that mostly affects children. The name comes from it being the fifth of five viral rash diseases seen in childhood (the others being measles, rubella, chicken pox, and roseola). The disease starts with symptoms like fevers, headaches, runny nose, upset stomach, fatigue, and occasionally, joint pain. After several days, a rash–fifth disease’s signature symptom–will start to appear.
Fifth disease usually is diagnosed when this rash appears. Normally, it begins on the face and makes it appear as though a child has been slapped.

Over time, it may also spread to the chest, back, arms, legs, and buttocks. It may itch but is generally mild and will go away within a week to ten days. If joint pain outlasts the rash, or if a rash never develops but fifth disease is suspected, a blood test can detect antibodies to the virus for up to two months following the initial infection to confirm the diagnosis. Typically, this type of confirmation is not needed, though, as symptoms are rarely severe and resolve with time.

Although it is a generally mild condition, fifth disease is caused by parvovirus B19 and is therefore highly contagious. It is primarily spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Once the rash appears, however, the disease is no longer contagious. Unfortunately, a vaccine isn’t available to help prevent fifth disease so common hygiene practices are encouraged such as washing hands, avoiding touching your nose, eyes, or mouth, and avoiding close contact with someone who is sick. This is especially important for pregnant women as fifth disease can be very concerning for them if contracted.

If you think you are starting to show symptoms of fifth disease, or you believe a child or other loved one may have contracted it, reach out to your primary care provider, or stop in at your local Twin Rivers Urgent Care. While there is not much that can be done to help with the viral process, some symptoms can be treated to help you get to feeling better, faster.