Fifth Disease: Virus Usually Associated With Children

Ask The Expert Dr. John Cmar, Sinai Hospital

December 14, 2009

When is a cold not a cold? The answer could be when it is fifth disease, according to Dr. John Cmar, an infectious disease specialist at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore. Even if you've never heard of this virus, chances are good that you have been - or will be - exposed to it, often without even knowing it. More than 70 percent of adults have had it at some time during their lives.

* Fifth disease is human parvovirus B19. It is most commonly associated with young children, although adults, too, can contract it. It is also called "slapped cheek disease" because in children, a rash often appears on the face, making it look as though the cheeks have been hit. It lasts between one and two weeks, but sufferers often feel better before then.

* A blood test can determine if a person currently has fifth disease or had it in the past. People can only get it once. The parvovirus B19 is spread when you come in contact with people's infected bodily secretions (such as mucus and saliva), share utensils and/or touch infected surfaces. It is not transferred from pets.

The best prevention methods are simple if you are at high risk. First, try to stay away from places with lots of children. Second, wash your hands. Hand hygiene is extremely important.

* In healthy children and adults, the symptoms are mild, and in some cases, there are no symptoms at all. The symptoms can be treated with ibuprofen or whatever a doctor recommends.

With kids, the most visible indicator is that rash, which shows up on other parts of the body after appearing on the face. It is lacy-looking and can be itchy. Adults rarely develop a rash, but both adults and children may have mild upper respiratory problems, a low-grade fever and fatigue.

Healthy adults may also acquire short-term arthritis in the joints, often in the knees, wrists and hands. Fortunately, the pain and swelling usually disappear within two weeks and don't return.

* There are rare times that the disease can be dangerous or cause lasting effects. When adults have underlying health conditions, such as leukemia, cancer, sickle cell anemia and HIV, more serious complications can arise. They can become chronically anemic. In those cases, a blood transfusion or an intravenous transfusion of antibodies designed to eliminate the virus from the body may be prescribed.

* It is important for pregnant women to be tested for fifth disease. Between 60 and 70 percent of women have had the virus before becoming pregnant, so there is no risk for them. However, if a pregnant woman contracts it, her physician may want to monitor her closely.

Under the best case scenario, the mom-to-be and the fetus may have mild anemia. In the worst-case scenario, if the anemia is severe, it could cause a spontaneous abortion or be responsible for a condition known as hydrops fetalis. This condition could cause the baby to swell in the womb and die. A blood transfusion may be directly given to the baby to treat it.

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