The symptoms of slapped cheek syndrome and how to treat it

slapped cheek syndrome

by Emily Gilbert |
Updated on

Is your little one having baby skin trouble? Rosy cheeks are adorable but if your little one is unusually red all of a sudden they may have what's known as 'slapped cheek syndrome', in the form of a rash. Along with the rash, they may experience other symptoms too.

What is slapped cheek syndrome?

Slapped cheek (also known as fifth disease or erythema infectiosum) is so-called because of the distinctive bright red rash that appears on the cheeks. It is a mild infection that often looks much worse than it is. Also, rather like chicken pox, you'll be relieved to know that once you've had it once, you're usually immune to it for life.

What does slapped cheek syndrome look like?

Slapped cheek syndrome usually looks like a bright red rash on both of their cheeks, hence the name. After a few days, the symptoms may develop further and they could have a spotty rash all over their chest, arms and legs, which looks like chicken pox. It may be harder to see on darker skin tones and it may be irritating, itchy or raised.

It's important to get them checked out by a GP or a healthy professional if you notice a change to their skin, as some childhood and baby rashes can be a sign of something more serious.

Symptoms of slapped cheek

Some babies will not get any symptoms at all in this first stage. So early on, it is highly contagious and can easily be passed on. Dr Sarah Temple, The Essential Parent Company's expert GP, says that 'in around 20-30% of cases, symptoms are so mild they’re barely noticeable.'

But the initial symptoms include:

•Flu-like symptoms
•Sore throat
•Upset tummy
•Joint pain

Can adults get slapped cheek syndrome?

Although it's usually babies and young children that suffer from slapped cheek, adults can get it as well. Although it's less common to experience it outside of childhood, the symptoms can be more serious. Once you've had it once, you are often immune from it and won't have it again in your lifetime.

Is slapped cheek contagious?

Slapped cheek is caused by an airborne virus (parvovirus B19) spread through coughs and sneezes and, as people are most contagious before symptoms begin, it’s very difficult to avoid and can be passed from baby to baby, particularly at places such as nurseries, playdates and playgroups (wherever they interact with other children). Most cases develop in the late winter/early spring.

It's inevitable that little ones will come down with a few colds, illnesses and bugs in their first few years on the planet, but there some winter health tips to keep the family feeling the best they can be at that time of the year, which include wiping down surfaces more regularly (as we're inside more some germs are more likely to spread) and to only use the heating when absolutely necessary, as it can dry out your eyes and skin and lead to you feeling irritated and tired.

What are the risks of slapped cheek syndrome during pregnancy?

If you happen to get slapped cheek syndrome yourself and you're pregnant, there is usually no reason to panic, but there are some possible complications. Most women will have healthy babies, but if you get Slapped Cheek within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, there is an increased risk of miscarriage. If you become infected during weeks 9 to 20 of your pregnancy, there is a small risk that the baby could develop foetal hydrops. This is more serious, as a build-up of fluid develops in the baby's body, causing possible anaemia or heart failure. It is possible for the baby to recover from, but the condition can be fatal.

There is no evidence that having slapped cheek syndrome during pregnancy causes birth defects or developmental problems later in childhood.

The stages of slapped cheek syndrome:

After a period of 7 to 10 days, a rash appears. The rash occurs in 3 distinct stages, Dr Temple explains.

Stage 1: 'In the first stage, children develop a bright red rash on both cheeks that usually fades over two to four days.

Stage 2: One to four days after the facial rash appears, a light pink, raised rash that’s a bit itchy, spreads out on the chest, arms, stomach and thighs. By now your little one is probably uncomfortable but no longer contagious.

Stage 3: In some cases, there’s a third stage when the rash fades but reappears over a period of weeks. Re-appearances are often triggered if your child is hot, anxious or has just exercised.’

Treatment of slapped cheek syndrome

'Paracetamol or ibuprofen will help with fever and pain while antihistamines reduce the itchiness. A gentle moisturiser might also soothe irritation,’ says Dr Temple. Pharmacists may recommend an antihistamine for your child if their skin is making them itch.

Otherwise, rest, take it easy and drink plenty of fluids, and babies should continue their normal feeds. The infection should clear up very soon.

It's important that you never give aspirin to a child who's under the age of 16.

If you're worried about any rash on your toddler or child, you should seek medical attention or advice as soon as possible.

Do I need to see a GP?

If your baby has slapped cheek, in most cases, it will be a mild infection that clears up on its own. If you are worried, you should speak to your GP – especially if your child has any known blood abnormalities (such as sickle cell anaemia) or is immunosuppressed.

They should be able to diagnose the syndrome quite quickly (due to the distinct look of the visible rash), but they may also do a blood test to see if you have recently had the parvovirus or if you have any immunity to it.

If you are pregnant and catch slapped cheek syndrome, consult your midwife or GP to prevent further complications from arising.

Can children with slapped cheek syndrome go to school?

Once the rash appears, they are no longer contagious so you don't need to keep them off of school, nursery or the childminders'. Just let the teacher or whoever's looking after to them know either before or when you drop them off, so they know why they have the rash and to look out for any signs of them feeling unwell.

Emily Fedorowycz is a writer for Mother & Baby, specialising in advice for parents, as well as product reviews.

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