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Scarlet Fever and Other Things You Didn’t Know About Strep

scarlet fever

Last week my 3-year-old had a fever. He fell asleep (not) eating lunch and spent most of the afternoon napping on the couch. Just before dinner, he came into the kitchen and vomited next to my feet. He vomited again after dinner, though he hadn’t eaten anything. We gave him some Tylenol and put him to bed. He slept well and was his normal energetic self the next morning. The fever and vomiting must have been a fluke, I thought, perhaps the remains of the flu he had a week before. It was time, I thought, to put the sickness behind us and get out into the world again. Some fresh air and activity would do us some good. So I packed up the kids and took them on the train to an Easter egg hunt at our church.

Almost as soon as we got off the train, the 3-year-old was tired and wanted me to carry him. I thought he’d be fine once we got inside, with all those kids to play with and eggs to find. And he seemed, again, to be fine. But as we were getting ready to head back home, I looked at him. His face looked a little puffy and pink. What was going on? Clearly this was not normal. And, again, by the time we were home he was feverish and tired. He slept the rest of the afternoon on the couch, and by dinner time it looked like he’d broken out in hives. This is when I really started to worry.

I am a “wait-and-see” kind of mom with a slight distrust of doctors and medicine, but even I couldn’t deny that something freaky was going on. I vowed to call the doctor in the morning regardless of the boy’s energy level or apparent wellness. I almost lost my nerve in the morning when he appeared (aside from the rash) to be feeling great. But I called anyway and was told to bring him in: it could be Strep.

None of my kids have had Strep before. While many of my siblings had it multiple times as kids, I never did. My boy had not complained of any pain in his throat, so while I really didn’t know what was going on, I was skeptical. But as soon as the doctor looked at him, he had his diagnosis: Strep, presenting as scarlet fever. A “classic case,” he called it.

Scarlet fever? Really? A classic case? I thought scarlet fever ended when they built the railroad and the Oregon Trail was abandoned. I was wrong. Not only did I have no idea that scarlet fever still existed, I had no idea it was a strain of Strep. Do you want to know what else I didn’t know? My 5-year-old had it, too. The doctor brought him into the waiting room, looked at him and said he thought he had it. Again, I was skeptical. He’d had no symptoms. He was tired, but I was sure this was because he inherited my inability to fall asleep for hours after going to bed. But the doctor saw two small sores on his face, one on his chin, one just inside his nose. Strep, he said, as he swabbed the sores and his throat. The test was positive, and several minutes later we found ourselves walking down the street in a haze of disbelief with prescriptions for amoxicillin.

While I am all for being smart about antibiotics, I had no hesitation getting those prescriptions filled. The complications of untreated scarlet fever rheumatic fever, pneumonia, arthritis, kidney disease, among others are not to be dismissed. Modern medicine wins.

Both my boys appear happy and healthy now. We are a halfway through the 10-day antibiotic cycle and they are quick to remind us to give them their pink medicine at breakfast and dinner. We’ll finish off the cycle and be done with it. But I will continue to wonder at how much I didn’t know about this common bacterial infection: it’s connection to scarlet fever, it’s presentation as sores on the face, that it sometimes starts with vomiting, that it causes a sunburned appearance (with normal-looking skin around the mouth), that the rash can cause the skin to peel within a week or so, that the tongue can take on a “strawberry” appearance (red and bumpy) . . . the list seems to go on and on. And, of course, I hope that next time I will be a little smarter about how I handle things when my kid gets sick.

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