Fifth disease is not actually a disease, but rather an infection of parvovirus B19. The name is derived from the fact that the virus is associated with one of five rash infections common in childhood.
Fifth Disease Infection Information
Despite being called a "disease," fifth disease is actually, in most cases, a mild infection caused by parvovirus B19. This is not the same parvovirus that affects dogs and cats, and it cannot be passed from animals to people or vice versa. The numerical name comes from the fact that fifth disease was among the five rash-associated infections of childhood that were common in the prevaccination era: measles; scarlet fever; rubella; Dukes' disease (also called Filatov-Dukes disease, scarlatinella, and fourth disease), a rash-producing infection not seen today; and fifth disease.
Most people recover from fifth disease quickly without complications. The infection begins with a headache, coldlike symptoms, and a low-grade fever. These symptoms pass within seven to ten days, only to be followed a few days later by the appearance of a bright red rash. However, by the time the rash appears, the infection is no longer contagious.
The rash usually begins on the face, making at least one cheek look like it has been slapped, and spreads in the form of lighter-red blotches to other parts of the body, especially the forearms. Sunlight, heat, exercise, and stress may reactivate the rash until it is completely gone, which typically takes about three weeks. For adults and older teenagers, an attack of fifth disease may create pain or joint swelling in the hands, wrists, knees, or ankles. Parvovirus infection can be worse and more prolonged in adults who have compromised immune systems.
Pregnant women who are not immune to parvovirus B19 should avoid contact with those who are infected because the infection can affect their developing children. Although fifth disease isn't known to cause birth defects, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) says the risk of fetal death in infected mothers is as high as 10 percent because the virus slows down production of red blood cells.
Remember, by the time the rash develops, fifth disease is no longer infectious. Pregnant women who work in places where parvovirus B19 is more likely to be present, such as elementary schools, should be aware if they are susceptible and consult a physician if an outbreak occurs.
Who's at Risk for Fifth Disease?
Any nonimmune person can become infected with fifth disease, but it most often strikes children between the ages of 5 and 15. The distinctive rash is more apparent in children younger than 10.
The AAFP also reports most cases of infection occur in late winter and spring and that it is most easily spread among schoolmates and children in day-care centers. Infection among family members is the second-most common way it gets around.
Defensive Measures Against Fifth Disease
There is no vaccine to prevent this infection, but according to the AAFP, studies show that by the age of 15 most people have developed antibodies and are immune, even if they have never shown any detectable symptoms.
Frequent hand washing is a practical and effective method to reduce the spread of this and other viruses. In addition, don't share drinking glasses and utensils, and cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing.
Hand-foot-and-mouth disease is a highly contagious infection that causes blisters and a rash, and some infected people may be at risk for developing viral meningitis. Go to the next page to learn about preventing and treating this illness.
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