Most people are familiar with the common infectious diseases of early childhood: measles, mumps, rubella (German measles) and chickenpox. Fortunately the first 3 of these are not often seen these days, and chickenpox is seen less often, because vaccines are available to prevent children catching them.
Another virus infection affecting young children is not so well known. Officially called erythema infectiosum (EI), it is often referred to as the Vth (fifth) disease, or slapped cheek disease.
This infection is due to a virus known as parvovirus B19. This can spread through breathing in tiny droplets present in the air through infected people’s coughs and sneezes. It can also spread through blood transfusions and from mother to baby.
About 7 days after contact with the virus, there is usually a mild flu-like illness that may last a week. A few days later the signs of infection are seen. This usually takes the form of a bright red rash on the face, often referred to as the ‘slapped cheek’ rash. A fainter rash may also be seen on the arms and legs. The rash is usually over in less than a week, but may reappear. Sore throat and swollen glands may also occur.
Adults can also have an attack of fifth disease. In most cases they will experience pain in the joints, especially the hands, knees, wrists and ankles. Women are more prone to joint symptoms than men.
In people with disorders of the blood, EI can trigger severe anaemia and lowering of the white blood cell numbers. Sometimes a blood transfusion is needed to deal with this problem.
When a pregnant woman catches EI there is a risk of losing the baby. Fortunately this is a rare event. Many adults have already been exposed to parvovirus B19 and are immune to it. However, if your child may have fifth disease, it makes sense to keep them away from women who are or may be pregnant.
As with most viral infections there is no specific treatment for EI. Rest and paracetamol will keep the child more comfortable until the illness is over.
If your child (or you) has been unwell with what you think is the flu and later develops bright red cheeks, EI may be the cause.
Last Reviewed: 07 December 2009