Scarlet fever

What is it? What are the symptoms? What are the treatments?

What is scarlet fever?

Scarlet fever, sometimes referred to as scarlatina, is a highly contagious bacterial illness caused by a strain of streptococcus. It's rare in the UK now and even when it is diagnosed, symptoms tend to be mild and nothing to worry about. It usually comes after a sore throat or other infection caused by the same group of bacteria.

You can catch scarlet fever by inhaling airborne bacteria from other people's coughs and sneezes. Although it's rare, cases tend to occur amongst children aged four to eight.

Scarlet fever in pregnancy is unlikely to cause any harm to an unborn baby, but if you do catch it while you're expecting, it's sensible to let your medical team know if you've been in contact with the bacteria.

What are the symptoms of Scarlet fever?

There's an incubation period of a 1-4 days between being in contact with the bacteria that cause scarlet fever and symptoms appearing. The first sign of illness is a rough-feeling, dry, pinkish-red rash, which quickly spreads over the body. It can be itchy, but not usually maddeningly so. The face becomes flushed, with white skin around the mouth, and the tongue may have the appearance of the surface of a strawberry.

Other symptoms include:

  • Swollen neck glands
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Stomach pains
  • Pastia lines (broken blood vessels in the folds of the body)
  • White coating on the tongue

What are the treatments and remedies of Scarlet fever?

Left untreated, most cases of scarlet fever will clear up within about a week. However, you'll usually be advised to have antibiotics, to prevent any complications developing. 

Most patients make a full recovery after four or five days of treatment, but it's important to complete the course of antibiotics, which is usually given for 10 days, in any case. 

The rash will usually fade from the top of the body downwards. 

If it's itchy, lotions can be applied regularly can help make the skin more comfortable. Paracetamol or ibuprofen can be given to ease aches and pains.

This guide 

The information in this Bounty A-Z of Family Health is not a substitute for an examination, diagnosis or treatment by a doctor, midwife, health visitor or any other qualified health professional. If in doubt, always speak to a doctor.

Bounty will not be held responsible or liable for any injury, loss, damage, or illness, however this occurs or appears, after using the information given on this website and in particular the A-Z of Family Health.

Further help

For health advice and information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the NHS offers call and web services. You can also visit NHS websites for services, health information and health news at nhs.uk 

  • England – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs.uk 
  • Scotland – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs24.com 
  • Wales – call 0845 4647 , or visit nhsdirect.wales.nhs.uk 
  • Northern Ireland – visit hscni.net


Scarlet fever