What is fifth disease?

Fifth disease is a childhood disease that appears as a bright red rash on the cheeks. It’s earned the nicknamed “slapped cheek disease” because of this rash. Fifth disease is caused by a virus called parvovirus B19. This virus is very contagious and infected people can spread it through coughing or sneezing.

Fifth disease got its name because it was the fifth viral rash disease known to affect children. The other viral rash diseases it’s grouped with include:

In most cases, fifth disease isn’t a serious medical condition and it goes away with little treatment.

Who might get fifth disease?

Anyone can get fifth disease, but it’s most likely to happen in school-aged children. Once you are exposed to the virus, your body’s immune system builds up defenses to fight it off. This means that if you have fifth disease as a child, you will be immune to it as an adult. There are exceptions to this immunity, but typically, adults do not get fifth disease.

What causes fifth disease?

Fifth disease is caused by human parvovirus (parvovirus B19). It’s a virus that spreads easily, through droplets in saliva and nasal secretions. This means that it can be passed from one person to another through a sneeze or cough. This virus can also travel through a pregnant woman’s blood to her unborn baby, but this is very rarely associated with a bad outcome.

What are the symptoms of fifth disease?

About 20% of people who get fifth disease don’t have symptoms. Still, they can pass the virus to others. The disease often starts with flu-like symptoms. During this time, the virus is most contagious. The main symptoms of fifth disease can include:

It can take several days after the onset of flu-like symptoms for the raised, slap-like rash to show up on the face or body. Once the rash appears, you are no longer contagious. The rash may be itchy. It should fade in five to 10 days. In some cases, you may see a second rash that develops after the “slapped cheek” rash. This time, the rash may be located on the:

  • Arms.
  • Legs.
  • Trunk (chest and back).
  • Buttocks.

About 10% of children with fifth disease also experience joint pain and swelling.

Fifth disease is much more common in children, but it can happen in adults. Adults who get fifth disease often develop flu-like symptoms without the rash. Along with those symptoms, about 80% of adults also develop joint pain in the wrists, hands and knees.

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