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Scarlet Fever

Scarlet Fever Facts and History

  • Scarlet fever (sometimes referred to as scarlatina) is an infectious disease characterized by
  • Scarlet fever is caused by an infection with group A Streptococcus, the same bacteria responsible for causing "strep throat" and various other skin infections (for example, impetigo and erysipelas).
  • Scarlet fever is predominantly a childhood disease occurring in children 2-10 years of age, though it can less commonly occur in older children and adults.
  • The incidence and mortality rates associated with this once feared disease have significantly decreased due to the introduction and widespread use of antibiotics.
  • Because it is so contagious, scarlet fever historically has been responsible for devastating epidemics, particularly in the 19th century. In 1923, the husband and wife team of George and Gladys Dick identified the streptococcal bacterium responsible for causing scarlet fever, and shortly thereafter they isolated the toxin responsible for causing the characteristic rash of scarlet fever. This led to the development of a test once used to determine an individual's immunity or susceptibility to scarlet fever and to the development of a patented vaccine.
  • The vaccine is no longer used, as its use was eliminated by the use of antibiotics.
Picture of scarlet fever rash
Picture of scarlet fever rash

What Causes Scarlet Fever?

Scarlet fever is caused by infection with exotoxin-producing group A beta-hemolytic streptococci (GABHS), notably Streptococcus pyogenes. The release of a particular toxin is responsible for the characteristic scarlet-colored rash seen with scarlet fever (giving the disease its name). In the majority of cases, scarlet fever occurs as a result of a pharyngeal streptococcal infection (strep throat), though it can less commonly occur as result of streptococcal infections at other sites, such as the skin. It is estimated that scarlet fever develops in up to 10% of individuals who develop streptococcal pharyngitis.

Scarlet fever can occur at any time of the year, though it is more common during the winter and spring. The streptococcal bacterium is typically spread via airborne respiratory droplets transmitted by infected individuals or by individuals who carry the bacteria but do not experience any symptoms (asymptomatic carriers). Streptococcal infections can also be transmitted by coming in direct contact with infected secretions and rarely by food-borne outbreaks. Transmission is enhanced in crowded environments in which individuals come in close contact with each other (for example, schools or day-care centers).

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/22/2016
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