Fifth Disease – A Definition
Fifth disease is a mild childhood illness caused by the human parvovirus B19 that causes flu-like symptoms and a rash. It is called fifth disease because it was fifth on a list of common childhood illnesses that are accompanied by a rash, including measles, rubella or German measles, scarlet fever (or scarlatina), and scarlatinella, a variant of scarlet fever.
The Latin name for the disease is erythema infectiosum, meaning infectious redness. It is also called the “slapped cheek disease” because, when the bright red rash first appears on the cheeks, it looks as if the face has been slapped. Anyone can get the disease, but it occurs more frequently in school-aged children. The disease is usually mild, and both children and adults usually recover quickly without complications. In fact, some individuals exhibit no symptoms and never even feel ill. Outbreaks most often occur in the winter and spring.
Causes and symptoms
Fifth disease is caused by the human parvovirus B19, a member of the Parvoviridae family of viruses, that lives in the nose and throat of the infected person. The virus is spread through the air by coughing and sneezing. Because the virus needs a rapidly dividing cell in order to multiply, it attacks the red blood cells of the body. Once infected, a person is believed to be immune to reinfection.
Symptoms may appear four to 21 days after being exposed to the virus. Initial symptoms are flu-like and include headache, body ache, sore throat, a mild fever of 101 °F (38.3 °C), and chills. It is at this time, prior to the development of the rash, that individuals are contagious. These symptoms last for two to three days. In children, a bright red rash that looks like a slap mark develops suddenly on the cheeks. The rash may be flat or raised and may or may not be itchy. Sometimes, the rash spreads to the arms, legs, and trunk, where it has a lace-like or net-like appearance. The rash can also involve the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. By the time the rash appears, individuals are no longer infectious. On average, the rash lasts for 10-11 days, but may last for as long as five to six weeks. The rash may fade away and then reappear upon exposure to sunlight, hot baths, emotional distress, or vigorous exercise.
Adults generally do not develop a rash, but instead may have swollen and painful joints, especially in the hands and feet. In adults, symptoms such as sore throat, headache, muscle and joint pain, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting occur more frequently than in children and are usually more severe. The joint pain can be arthritis-like and last for several months, especially in women, but the disease does not appear to progress to rheumatoid arthritis.
The virus causes the destruction of red blood cells and, therefore, a deficiency in the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood (anemia) can result. In healthy people, the anemia is mild and only lasts a short while. In people with weakened immune systems, however, either because they have a chronic disease like AIDS or cancer (immunocompromised), or are receiving medication to suppress the immune system (immunosuppressed), such as organ transplant recipients, this anemia can be severe and last long after the infection has subsided. Symptoms of anemia include fatigue, lack of color, lack of energy, and shortness of breath. Some individuals with sickle cell anemia, iron deficiency, a number of different hereditary blood disorders, and those who have received bone marrow transplantations may be susceptible to developing a potentially life-threatening complication called a transient aplastic crisis where the body is temporarily unable to form new red blood cells.
In very rare instances, the virus can cause inflammation of different areas of the body, including the brain (encephalitis), the covering of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis), the lungs (pneumonitis), the liver (hepatitis), and the heart muscle (myocarditis). The virus can also aggravate symptoms for people with an autoimmune disease called systemic lupus erythematosus.
There is some concern about fifth disease in pregnant women. Although no association with an increased number of birth defects has been demonstrated, there is concern that infection during the first three months of pregnancy may lead to a slight increase in the number of miscarriages. There is also some concern that infection later in pregnancy may involve a very small risk of premature delivery or stillbirths. As a result, women who get fifth disease while they are pregnant should be monitored closely by a physician.
Fifth disease is usually suspected based on a patient’s symptoms, including the typical appearance of the bright red rash on the cheeks, patient history, age, and the time of year. The physician will also exclude other potential causes for the symptoms and rash, including rubella, infectious mononucleosis, bacterial infections like Lyme disease, allergic reactions, and lupus.
In addition, there is a blood test for fifth disease, but it is generally used only for pregnant women and for people who have weakened immune systems or who suffer from blood disorders, such as sickle cell anemia. The test involves measuring for a particular antibody or protein that the body produces in response to infection with the human parvovirus B19. The test is 92-97% specific for this disease.
Because fifth disease can pose problems for an unborn fetus exposed to the disease through the mother, testing may also be conducted while a fetus is still in the uterus. This test uses fluid collected from the sac around the fetus (amniotic fluid) instead of blood to detect the viral DNA.
In general, no specific treatment for fifth disease is required. The symptoms can be treated using over-the counter medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil). If the rash itches, calamine lotion can be applied. Aspirin is usually not given to children under the age of 18 to prevent the development of a serious illness called Reye’s syndrome.
Patients who are receiving medications to suppress the immune system in the treatment of some other condition may be allowed to temporarily decrease the medications in order to allow the immune system to combat the infection and recover from the anemia. Those with weakened (not suppressed) immune systems, such as AIDS patients, may be given immunoglobulin intravenously to help the immune system fight the infection. People with severe anemia or who experience an aplastic crisis may require hospitalization and blood transfusions.
Generally, fifth disease is mild, and patients tend to improve without any complications. In cases where the patient is either immunocompromised or immunosuppressed, a life-threatening aplastic crisis can occur. With prompt treatment, however, the prognosis is good. Mothers who develop the infection while pregnant can pass the infection on to their fetus, and as such, stand an increased risk of miscarriage and stillbirth. There are tests and treatments, however, that can be performed on the fetus while still in the uterus that can reduce the risk of anemia or other complications.
Currently, there is no vaccine against fifth disease. Avoiding contact with persons who exhibit symptoms of a cold and maintaining good personal hygiene by regularly washing hands may minimize the chances of an infection. Pregnant women should avoid exposure to persons infected with the disease and notify their obstetrician immediately if they are exposed so that they can be tested and monitored closely.