Scarlet fever was one of the leading causes of death of children, toddlers and infants until the late 19th century when cases started to drop dramatically.  In fact, by the 1980s, only a handful of infections were reported each year.  However, infections are making a comeback in a big way, and it is thought that upwards of a million people will be impacted this year alone, and scientists have no idea why.

What is Scarlet Fever?

Scarlet fever is caused by bacteria that take root in the mouth, throat, sinuses and nasal cavity.  Infections generally impact children under the age of 10, and they are most-commonly spread through coughing, sneezing or coming into contact with the saliva or mucous of infected individuals.  It can also be passed from the hands of infected children who transfer traces of bacteria to objects such as door knobs, toys, desks and faucets.  It is a highly-contagious and resilient bacteria, but scarlet fever is rarely life threatening if caught and treated in time.

Signs and Symptoms

The most-common sign is the presence of a pinkish rash that usually develops on the chest and belly before spreading to other parts of the body.  It is usually accompanied by a fever that is higher than 101 degrees, sore throat, chills, fatigue, swollen tonsils and glands as well as nausea and vomiting.  In many cases, the tongue will start to loosely-resemble a strawberry as it becomes a deep red with small white blotches.

Another common companion to scarlet fever is strep throat, or an infection of the tonsils that produces painful swelling as well as the formation of pus on the tissues.  Doctors will usually swab the tonsils in order to get a culture to diagnose whether someone has scarlet fever or not.


Treatment usually involves administering a course of antibiotics and providing the patient with plenty of fluids and rest.  Most cases will resolve themselves within a couple of weeks without further complications.  However, left untreated, the infection can spread to other parts of the body where it can wreak havoc on the kidneys, heart, lungs and joints.

How Many Cases?

It’s hard to say with any degree of accuracy how many people in the United States develop scarlet fever each year as doctors are not required to report data to the CDC.  However, a rapid uptick in cases across Europe and Asia suggests that this is turning into a public health crisis.  Since it is so contagious, parents who are unaware of signs and symptoms, as well as the importance of seeking immediate treatment can unwittingly be causing the bacteria to spread.  Furthermore, many parents do not seek medical care as symptoms may not appear to be that serious.

High Pandemic Risk

Because controlling scarlet fever is dependent on early treatment, isolation and access to antibiotics, infections can spread like wildfire in a short amount of time under the right circumstances.  It is not beyond the scope of possibility that millions of cases can emerge within months of an original outbreak if a crisis or SHTF situation occurred at the right time and under the right circumstances.

The good news is that all of us can mitigate this risk by following basic precautions such as frequent hand washing, wearing a face mask if symptoms are present and avoiding people who may be infected.  It’s also important to isolate anyone who is infected in order to minimize the chances of them spreading the bacteria to others.

Take time to become more familiar with scarlet fever as well as how you can minimize the chances of exposure.  While it may not seem like a big deal now, scarlet fever could become one of the biggest health threats that families face following a major crisis.