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Scarlet fever

Scarlet fever is a contagious infection that mostly affects young children. It’s easily treated with antibiotics.

The first signs of scarlet fever can be flu-like symptoms, including a high temperature of 38oC or above and swollen neck glands (large lump on the side of the neck).
A rash appears a few days later.

Check if your child has scarlet fever

  • A pink-red rash comes out, which feels like sandpaper and looks like sunburn. It starts on the chest and tummy
  • A white coating also appears on the tongue. This peels, leaving it red and swollen (“strawberry tongue”)
  • The rash doesn’t appear on the face, but the cheeks can be flushed

What happens at your appointment
GPs can often diagnose scarlet fever by looking at the tongue and rash. Sometimes they may:

  • Wipe a cotton bud around the back of the throat to test for bacteria
  • Arrange a blood test
image of unwell child laying on sofa holding head

Treating scarlet fever
Your GP will prescribe antibiotics. These don’t cure scarlet fever, but they will help your child get better quicker. They also reduce the risk of serious illnesses, such as pneumonia.

It’s important your child keeps taking antibiotics until they’re finished, even when your child is feeling better.

Things you can do to help your child

  • Encourage them to drink cool fluids
  • Eat soft foods to ease a sore throat
  • Take painkillers like paracetamol to bring down a temperature (don’t give aspirin to children under 16)
  • Apply calamine lotion
  • Ask your pharmacist’s advice on what antihistamine tablets your child can take to stop the itching

How long scarlet fever lasts
Scarlet fever lasts for around a week.
Your child is infectious from up to 7 days before the symptoms start and until:

  • 24 hours after they take the first antibiotic tablet
  • 2 weeks after symptoms start, if they don’t take antibiotics

Is scarlet fever dangerous?
In the past, scarlet fever was a serious illness, but antibiotics mean it’s now less common and easier to treat, although cases of scarlet fever have increased in recent years.

Complications are rare but can include:

  • Ear infections
  • Throat abscesses
  • Pneumonia
  • Meningitis
  • Rheumatic fever

How to avoid spreading scarlet fever
Scarlet fever is very infectious and can easily spread to other people.
To reduce the risk of spreading scarlet fever:


  • Encourage your child to wash their hands often with soap and warm water
  • Ensure your child uses tissues to trap germs from coughs or sneezes, and bin used tissues as quickly as possible


  • Let your child share cutlery, cups, towels, clothes, bedding or baths

See a GP if your child:

  • Has scarlet fever symptoms
  • Doesn’t get better in a week (after seeing the GP), especially if your child has recently had chickenpox
  • Is ill again weeks after scarlet fever has cleared up – this can be a sign of a complication, such as pneumonia

Scarlet fever is very infectious. Check with the GP before you go in. They may suggest a phone consultation.

Visit the NHS website to find out how you can protect your family from scarlet fever.