The number of scarlet fever cases in England continues to skyrocket as numbers this season have doubled the same period last year, according to Public Health England (PHE) officials.

Group-A Streptococcus (GAS)/CDC
Group-A Streptococcus (GAS)/CDC

PHE says this is the second year in a row of exceptional activity. A total of 754 new cases were reported in England last week (2 to 8 March) and 5746 since the season began in September (week 37 in 2014 to week 10 2015). This compares to 2833 cases for the same period last season.

Yorkshire and the Humber (836), East Midlands (619) and London (532) have reported the most cases this season.

Scarlet fever is a bacterial illness that usually follows a sore throat or a skin infection (impetigo) caused by Group A streptococcus bacteria.

The characteristic symptom of scarlet fever is a widespread, fine pink-red rash that feels like sandpaper to touch. It may start in one area, but soon spreads to many parts of the body, such as the ears, neck and chest. The rash may be itchy.

Other symptoms include a high temperature, a flushed face and a red, swollen tongue.

Symptoms of scarlet fever usually develop two to five days after infection, although you will be contagious before showing signs of the illness.

Scarlet fever is extremely contagious and can be caught by: breathing in bacteria in airborne droplets from an infected person’s coughs and sneezes; touching the skin of a person with a streptococcal skin infection and sharing contaminated towels, baths, clothes or bed linen. It can also be caught from carriers – people who have the bacteria in their throat or on their skin but do not show any symptoms.

Scarlet fever is mainly a childhood disease and is most common between the ages of 2 and 8 years. It was once a very dangerous infection, but although much less serious now, complications can arise, particularly in those who remain untreated. There is currently no vaccine for scarlet fever.

Dr Theresa Lamagni, PHE’s head of streptococcal infection surveillance, said:

We’re continuing to see a considerable increase in the number of people diagnosed with scarlet fever across England confirming this is the second season in a row with exceptionally high numbers. Scarlet fever is a seasonal disease and this is the time of year when the highest numbers of cases are typically seen.

Given that the scarlet fever season should peak within the next few weeks, we should see a reduction in numbers soon, but in the meantime substantial numbers of people will continue to be affected.