What is scarlet fever?
Scarlet fever is a type of bacterial throat infection that also features a red (scarlet) rash. It is also known as 'scarlatina'. It usually affects school-aged children aged 5 to 15.
It is caused by group A streptococci bacteria — the same type of bacteria that cause a ‘strep throat’, impetigo, wound infections or rheumatic fever.
Treatment with antibiotics means most people recover in about a week, but left untreated it can spread to other parts of the body and cause serious health problems.
What are the symptoms of scarlet fever?
Symptoms of scarlet fever usually appear between 1 and 3 days after contracting the infection and include a very red sore throat, swollen glands and fever.
About 12 to 24 hours after symptoms start, red blotches appear on the skin, usually the face, neck, underarms, or groin. In about 24 hours it spreads to the rest of the body and changes to look like sunburn and feel like sandpaper. After 3 to 7 days, the rash starts to peel.
It may also cause:
- red bumps on the tongue — it looks like a strawberry, or a whitish coating on the tongue
- abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting
- very sore throat and tonsils — swallowing is difficult
- swollen glands in the neck
- aches all over the body
What causes scarlet fever?
The group A streptococcal bacteria are found in the nose and throat. They are spread by:
- coughing and sneezing
- contact with a contaminated surface, such as a plate or glass
- touching or kissing an infected person
Children can also catch it by touching the sores of someone who has a streptococcal skin infection.
Read more about streptococcal infections.
How is scarlet fever diagnosed?
You should see a doctor if your child has a very sore throat and red rash. They will do a physical examination and take a swab from the throat to check for the bacteria.
FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.
ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.
How is scarlet fever treated?
Scarlet fever is treated with antibiotics. If left untreated, the bacteria might spread to the tonsils, lungs, skin, kidneys, blood or middle ear. Antibiotics will prevent serious health problems including rheumatic fever, kidney disease, pneumonia and arthritis.
The doctor may also recommend rest, pain relief and that your child drinks a lot of water.
Your child will stop being infectious 24 hours after they start antibiotics. If they don't have antibiotics, they can still be infectious for 2 to 3 weeks.
How can scarlet fever be prevented?
The best way for your child to avoid scarlet fever is by washing their hands often, and to not share plates or utensils with other people.
To avoid giving it to other people, they should cover their nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.
Children with scarlet fever should stay home while they are unwell, and for at least 24 hours after starting antibiotics.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: March 2021