TORONTO — You may not have heard of it. But chances are pretty decent that if you’re a grown-up, you’ve had fifth disease.
The oddly named ailment — also known as “slapped cheek syndrome” — is quite common among elementary school aged children. Its signature is the scarlet cheek rash that creates that just-slapped look to which its nickname alludes.
The actual medical term is Erythema infectiosum, which means a contagious rash or redness of the skin. But it is generally known as fifth disease, so-called because it was the fifth of a number of exanthems or rash-causing diseases identified. The preceding ones are, in order: measles, scarlet fever, rubella and Dukes’ disease.
Most doctors can spot with ease kids afflicted with fifth disease, at least in the cases where the distinctive cheek rash appears.
“For doctors, when you’re looking in the waiting room, you can go ‘I’ll bet I know what that one’s got’ just because of that rash,” says Dr. Joanne Embree, past-president of the Canadian Pediatric Society and a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Winnipeg Children’s Hospital.
Another reason most doctors know it: fifth disease is a favourite of those who draw up medical exams.
“It makes a great question,” Embree says. “It’s one of the few things that all the doctors know.”
They may know about it and be able to spot it, but there’s not much doctors can do when confronted with patients with fifth disease.
There’s no vaccine, and not much chance one will be developed. “It would be very hard to justify in terms of the health impact,” says Dr. Ronald Gold.