A Mass General dermatologist answers questions about parvovirus, a common childhood virus.

If you notice that your child’s cheeks are suddenly bright red after a mild illness, this may be a sign of a common childhood virus called parvovirus. Also known as fifth disease, it is very common among school-aged children and sometimes adults. It occurs most frequently during winter and spring months.

What are the symptoms?

At first, children experience headache, fever and chills. Sometimes they have a runny nose or upset stomach for two to three days, followed by a characteristic bright red rash on the cheeks. The rash looks like “slapped cheeks,” so sometimes parvovirus is referred to as “slapped cheek disease.”

Parvovirus can also cause an itchy red rash on the hands and feet that lasts about two weeks.

One to three days after the facial rash, an itchy pink-red, lacy rash develops over the trunk, arms and legs. It slowly fades over several weeks. Parvovirus can also cause an itchy red rash on the hands and feet that lasts about two weeks.

Joint pain and swelling can occur in the hands, wrists, knees and ankles for several days or even weeks. The joint symptoms are rare in children and much more common in adults. In fact, in adults it may be the only symptom of infection.

How is it spread?

Parvovirus is spread like a cold, either by hand-to-hand contact or by coughing or sneezing. The best prevention is to wash your hands frequently and cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. There is no vaccine to prevent it in humans, but if you get it once, you are immune from getting it again.

What is the treatment?

The virus goes away on its own. The best treatment in the meantime is to drink fluids, rest and take acetaminophen or ibuprofen if needed for any joint complaints. If the rash is itchy, dermatologists can prescribe topical medications for relief.

Are there serious complications?

In general, parvovirus is a mild short-lived illness.

In general, parvovirus is a mild short-lived illness. But it can cause severe anemia in people with sickle cell anemia or with weakened immune systems, such as caused by cancer or organ transplantation. Pregnant women should see a physician if they think they have parvovirus symptoms because the virus could infect her unborn child.

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Maryanne M. Senna, MD, is a Mass General dermatologist who cares for both children and adults. In addition to general dermatology, her expertise includes hair loss, nail disorders, psoriasis, acne and skin conditions during pregnancy.