What To Know If Your Child Has That 'Slapped Cheek' Rash

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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For the most part, I was pretty prepared for what to expect as a new parent. The leaking boobs, the sleepless nights, the crying and fussing. But no one told me that raising children meant dealing with every bizarre and gross virus out there – and that it would feel like a different virus took hold of my kids practically every other week.

Yup, kids catch all kinds of crap, especially when they are young. Some are the typical cold or flu. But some are strange AF – and many I hadn’t even heard of before I had kids. When my kids first caught hand, foot, and mouth disease, I was sure that God had invented it to torture parents for no good reason.

I mean, come on – a virus that not only makes you sick and miserable, but produces a bumpy rash on your hands, feet, and the inside of your mouth? That shit even makes kids’ toenails fall off after a few weeks (totally harmless, but it does happen in some cases).

But nope: norovirus; hand, food, and mouth; pink eye; and lice are only the tip of the iceberg here, folks. There are a million other icky germs that your kid is liable to bring home. For example, ever heard of fifth disease?

I hadn’t, until my son surprised me by waking up with bright red cheeks one morning after he’d been battling a cold for a few days. After freaking the heck out for a few minutes, and buttering him with all kinds of questions (“Who smacked you across the face while you were sleeping?!”), I called his doctor and got the down-low.

The doctor said we could come in if needed, but it was probably just fifth disease – or, “erythema infectiosum,” as the doctor referred to it. No complications, nothing to worry about. If no fever, you can even send him to school, the doctor said.

Ummmm….OK? I did keep him home that day, but he seemed absolutely fine, and once I did some digging, I learned that he was indeed fine, and not even contagious at that point. He just looked like he’d been slapped silly. SO weird.

Here’s what else I learned about fifth disease:

1. The “slapped cheek” rash isn’t the only rash you can get.

The rosy red cheeks are what you usually think of when you hear about fifth disease. But guess what? That’s not the only rash you are likely to contend with if your kid contracts the virus.

“Some people may get a second rash a few days later on their chest, back, buttocks, or arms and legs,” notes the CDC. “The rash may be itchy, especially on the soles of the feet. It can vary in intensity and usually goes away in seven to 10 days, but it can come and go for several weeks. As it starts to go away, it may look lacy.”

An itchy rash that lasts up to several freaking weeks? LOVELY.

2. It starts with cold symptoms and it’s impossible to tell if you have it at first.

Fifth disease starts out with common cold symptoms, according to the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP), including a stuffy/runny nose, sore throat, headache, and a mild fever. It won’t be until 7-10 days later that you’ll get the telltale rash.

UGHHHH. See, that’s the kind of thing that drives me bonkers as a mom. My kid is sick with some cold thingie, I think we’re good, and then some freaky rash starts spreading everywhere. I get confused, certain my kid has caught the plague … and it’s nothing. Just fifth-fucking-disease.

3. Your joints may get sore and achy.

What you might not know is that some people can get sore/painful/achy joints along with all the other symptoms. As the CDC explains, this is called “polyarthropathy syndrome,” and is usually more common when adults contract the virus, specifically women (i.e., when mom catches the ick, which always seems to happen, doesn’t it?).

“Some adults with fifth disease may only have painful joints, usually in the hands, feet, or knees, and no other symptoms,” writes the CDC. “The joint pain usually lasts 1 to 3 weeks, but it can last for months or longer. It usually goes away without any long-term problems.”


4. You are actually least contagious when the rash starts.

The thing with fifth disease is that, according to the AAP, the rash doesn’t appear until 7-10 days after the sick symptoms began AND it sticks around for 5-10 days after that. (Fun fact: As the AAP describes it, although the rash fades about a week after it appears, it may suddenly reappear weeks or even months later, when your kid get hot from exercise, baths, or sunbathing.)

So, even though your kid is sporting a rash that looks freaky, gross, and contagious as hell, they actually are just fine and aren’t going to get other kids sick. But it can be a pain in the butt having to explain that to everyone you meet.

5. It’s usually not a serious infection.

OK, here’s the silver lining – because there has to be one with an annoying virus like this one. It is very unlikely that your kid will have anything serious happen to them. Just an annoying cold, maybe some achy joints, and that telltale slapped cheek look.

There are some rare expectations, though. If your child has a blood disorder like sickle cell anemia, there could be complications. Fifth disease “can make sickle cell anemia and other hemolytic anemias, much worse,” explains the AAP. “This complication may lead to an aplastic crisis in which blood counts drop to dangerously low levels.”

In addition, if you have any underlying medical condition like a weakened immune system, cancer, or HIV, you are at risk for more serious side-effects from fifth disease, says the CDC. And of course, it goes without saying that if your child develops any kind of strange rash, you should call or visit your doctor for guidance. Always better to be safe than sorry.

But for most of us, fifth disease is just another one of those harmless childhood diseases that make us want to gag, run for the hills, and slather our entire house with Lysol and hand sanitizer for all of eternity.

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