Fifth’s disease, so named because it used to be the fifth most common childhood condition (after measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox), is a mild contagious viral illness that affects children and sometimes adults. After about two weeks of incubation, a rash suddenly breaks out on the cheeks. In fact, it’s commonly known as “slapped cheeks,” which dates back to the time when kids were routinely disciplined that way. The rash can progress down the trunk to the extremities and usually lasts as long as a week or two before fading. Some days it will look worse than others. Like all rashes, it is most evident when blood flow to the skin increases, as it does during a bath or while crying, for example. Other symptoms may include fever, headache, sore throat, and itching. In rare cases,
Fifth’s disease may cause temporary swelling and redness of the joints. Since it is viral in nature, there is no treatment for Fifth’s disease but time and relief of discomfort. Unless Jimmy feels lousy, he does not have to be out of school, because the illness takes so long to resolve and almost every kid around him probably has it anyway, thanks to the nature of viral maladies in schoolyards. Fifth’s disease is a potential concern for pregnant mothers. The virus that causes it can also induce miscarriage or severe fetal anemia if contracted in the early stages of pregnancy. Fortunately, this is rare, since most adults have acquired a natural immunity from previous exposure in childhood. In any event, avoiding contact is almost impossible, because the illness is so widespread, and those with the disease are contagious before symptoms appear.