Five Secrets of Scarlet Fever

It is a bad cold. The kind that puts you in that unique Purgatory in the middle of the night when you’re too achy to sleep, yet too tired to do anything but stare outside into the darkness, waiting for the sun to rise. Your taste left you several days before to a constant flood of mucus and you spend your days peeling off layers of clothes, only to pile them back on again when a chill hits you. “This is bad,” you think, “but I’ve had worse.” So you keep popping pain pills and Vitamin C and try your best to carry on.

This isn’t just a bad cold though. And it wasn’t for my husband and me. Just as my husband started feeling better around the fifth day after his symptoms started, he got a rash on his torso. He went into the doctor the next day. The doctor was sure it wasn’t anything but a virus, but he ran a Strep Test anyway. The result was positive, very subtly positive. He put my husband and me on antibiotics, but within 48 hours my husband’s rash had exploded into full-blown Scarlet Fever, and we were in the ER at Parker Adventist Hospital. Our bad cold turned into an antiquated disease that would strike fear into the hearts of families and force quarantines for weeks on end. Contrary to popular belief, Scarlet Fever hasn’t been eradicated, like Polio or Smallpox. It’s an affliction that will stay with us forever because of these five secrets:

1)    No Vaccine. Scarlet Fever is caused by Streptococcus bacteria, so there are no vaccines that can prevent you from having it. Vaccines only protect you from viruses. Oddly enough, the microscopic strep bacteria is infected itself with a virus. The toxins produced by the strep are the cause of the Scarlet Fever.

2)    Super-Bugs. The only way to combat Scarlet Fever is with antibiotics. But here’s the rub, all bacteria, including strep, are becoming more resistant to antibiotics. Doctors are prescribing steroids, like Prednisone, to enhance the body’s natural ability to fight certain infections. They’re also prescribing intense doses of antibiotics that require only 5 days of pills rather than 10. Both of these methods have their own side effects and the fact remains that natural selective pressure of antibiotics will produce more antibiotic resilient bacteria in the future.

3)    Quarantine. Before the mid-twentieth century, people who had Scarlet Fever were quarantined until the symptoms disappeared. In general this was close to a month. There is still quarantine on people with Scarlet Fever. Fortunately, the quarantine only lasts 24 hours after your start antibiotics, just like the Strep quarantine. The quarantine might end, but it does take close to two weeks from the onset of symptoms before you feel 100% and the rash peels for a month afterward.

4)    Complications. It is important to have Scarlet Fever treated. The antibiotics contain the spread of the disease and it decreases the likelihood of complications from the infection. These include glomerulonephritis (which is an infection of the kidneys) to endocarditis in the heart and heart valve problems. When my husband was in the ER, his liver enzymes were high. The doctors felt it was due to the infection and they kept a close eye on his enzyme levels weeks afterward.

5)    Our odd case of Scarlet Fever. The doctor who first examined the rash on my husband didn’t think we really had Strep. “Viruses can give you a rash,” he said, “but let’s do a Strep test to be sure.” Once the test was positive, he told us an intriguing trend he noticed. Only adults were coming to his family practice with Strep, no children. And low and behold, our children didn’t get sick at all, and since they were on Fall Break they were very exposed. Could the kids have been immunized against the virus in the bacteria and our childhood immunization worn off? Maybe, but the kids would have gotten sick from the bacteria, and how could the body recognize the virus if it was inside the bacteria? It’s a mystery but it does show that, like all other organisms in nature, the Strep bacteria have variations between individual populations.

Thanks to an aggressive dose of antibiotics, my husband was feeling better within a week of his trip to the ER. When he was tested two weeks later, his liver enzymes were back to normal. It’s now been almost a month since he had Scarlet Fever and the only hallmark of the disease he still carries is scaly, peeling skin, which is slow to disappear. We are very thankful we live in a country and at a time when a once terrifying disease can be managed. However, as the Strep bacteria evolve, only time will tell if Scarlet Fever will once again be the force of destruction it once was.

Jennifer Smith-Daigle is a stay-at-home mother of a fourth- grade daughter and twin first-grade boys. She and her boys are survivors of Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome, being some of the first 200 people in the United States to be cured by Fetoscopic Laser Ablation surgery. Jennifer’s life before kids included world travel, historic preservation, and archaeology digs. When she’s not busy with a house full of kids and enough mammals to constitute a small zoo, Jennifer finds freedom in freelance writing, martial arts, and gardening.