Scarlet fever

Originally Published: December 14, 2001 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: September 21, 2012
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Dear Alice,

I have a case of Scarlet Fever and was wondering how contagious it is and for how long. Am I putting people at risk by being around them?

Dear Reader,

It's very kind of you to consider the contagious factor! Scarlet fever is a bacteria that is spread by inhaling the droplets of an infected person (released for example, during coughing), by sharing utensils or other personal items, or by direct contact with an infected person. Effective hand washing is a great prevention tool. It’s worth noting that your level of contagiousness drops considerably after being on antibiotics for 24 hours. At that time, it is unlikely that you could spread the infection to another.

Here’s some background: Scarlet fever is a disease caused by group A streptococcus — the same bug responsible for strep throat and impetigo. Scarlet fever is a rare disease that usually occurs in children. Symptoms usually develop within two days of becoming infected and may include: 

  • A reddish-pink rash that spreads from the neck and face to the rest of the body. This rash is often described as having a rough, sandpapery feel and peels as it begins to fade.
  • A red, swollen tongue.
  • Bright red color in the underarms and groin and around the mouth.
  • A very red and sore throat.
  • Whitish coating on the tongue.
  • Fever and chills.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Vomiting.
  • General body aches.
  • Headaches.
  • Low energy.

If left untreated, the disease can become more serious, including symptoms such as:

  • Rheumatic fever.
  • Ear infections.
  • Kidney disease.
  • Liver damage.
  • Bone or joint problems.
  • Pneumonia.
  • Meningitis.

Your health care provider can diagnose scarlet fever during a physical exam (the rough rash is a dead giveaway) and via a throat culture. Columbia students can make an appointment with a health care provider at Medical Services, either online through Open Communicator, or by calling x4-2284.Students at the Medical Center campus can contact Student Health for an appointment.

A variety of different antibiotics can treat group A strep and the illness subsides rather quickly once treatment begins, though the rash can hang around for seven days or longer after a person begins antibiotics. Even if you’re feeling better, take your full course of antibiotics to prevent any resistant bacteria from proliferating. While it’s good to be cautious about potential transmission, feel free to lift the quarantine 24 hours after beginning your antibiotic treatment unless your health care provider instructs you otherwise.

Here’s to feeling better soon,