Slapped Cheek Disease
EDP column by Dr Ketan Dhatariya

“My 5 year old son recently had cheeks that were bright red. He had a fever at the time. My doctor said he had slapped cheek disease. What is this?"

Slapped cheek disease is a viral infection that is also known as Fifth Disease and Erythema Infectiosum. It is caused by a virus known as Parvovirus B19. It usually affects children, but can affect adults as well. The condition can make it look as though the person has been slapped with one or both cheeks, making them bright red. Whilst it looks dramatic, the rash is usually painless. The condition itself is usually associated with a mild fever and there may also be a faint rash over the upper body. The condition usually lasts for a few days and goes away on its own.

It is known as Fifth Disease because it is the fifth most common cause of a childhood rash (the other four are scarlet fever, measles, rubella, and roseola). As a result, most adults in the UK have had the condition by the time they are in their 30’s. Like most viral infections, once you have had it you become immune to it and will not get it again. It is usually caught in the same way as a common cold. You may have a pet that has been vaccinated against Parvovirus, but that is a different condition, and you cannot catch slapped cheek disease from you cat or dog.

Very occasionally, the condition can lead to serious problems. In people who have sickle cell anaemia, the virus can switch off the ability of the bone marrow to make new red blood. In other people, who have weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV, leukaemia or cancer, the infection can cause a more severe disease. In addition, infection during pregnancy can cause problems for the developing baby.  

The treatment is with rest and simple painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. But, as always, if you have any concerns go and have a chat with your GP or pharmacist.

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