Early cases of fifth disease reported at Bedford’s Memorial School

Friday, February 10, 2012


Staff Writer

Mild temperatures have brought bouts of fifth disease to Memorial School earlier this year, school nurse Rachel Higgins said Tuesday.

On Feb. 1, Higgins issued a letter to parents and guardians of Memorial students, informing them that the school had experienced one confirmed case and one suspected case of fifth disease, which is especially common in children between the ages of 5 and 15.

The illness produces a red rash on the face that makes the child appear to have a “slapped cheek,” Higgins said, which can spread to the trunk, arms and legs.

It begins as a low-grade fever, headache and mild cold-like symptoms, including a stuffy or runny nose, Higgins said. Once those symptoms pass and the illness seems to be gone, the rash appears a few days later.

A person with fifth disease is most contagious before the rash appears, Higgins said, the time between infection and the onset of symptoms, or when a person has only mild respiratory symptoms.

Higgins said it spreads from person to person in fluids from the nose, mouth and throat, especially through large droplets from coughs and sneezes. It also can be spread through shared drinking glasses and utensils, Higgins said.

Despite being called a “disease,” fifth disease is actually just a viral illness that most children recover from quickly and without complications, Higgins said.

“It’s caused by a virus,” Higgins said. “Once the kids have a rash, they’ve already exposed everybody to it, so they can be in school with it.”

The disease, though not considered serious, may present problems for pregnant women, Higgins said.

“I always like to warn parents because pregnant women have to know about it so they can check with their physicians,” Higgins said. “It can cause some issues in the first trimester.”

Higgins said about half of all pregnant women are immune to the virus and serious problems occur in less than 5 percent of women who become infected.

Memorial typically sees five to six cases of fifth disease each year starting around March, Higgins said, and once one school reports it, it sometimes pops up at other schools.

“It’s hard to tell with little kids because their cheeks are red often with the weather,” Higgins said. “But it’s a distinguished rash.”

Unfortunately, there is no perfect way to protect oneself from fifth disease, Higgins said.

“You have to wash your hands a lot like everything else,” Higgins said. “Sneeze in your elbow. We teach the kids that, but when you’re working with a young population, you’re teaching them, but it takes time for them to actually do it.”

Once a student comes down with fifth disease, Higgins said, all a parent can do is let the illness run its course.

The rash usually lasts one to three weeks, Higgins said. In a few cases in older children and adults, joint swelling and pain associated with fifth disease have lasted from a few months up to a few years.

“Eat a healthy diet and get lots of rest,” Higgins said.

Maryalice Gill can be reached at 594-6490 or Follow Gill on Twitter (@Telegraph_MAG).

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