How to Handle Scary-Sounding Childhood Diseases

Hand, foot and mouth disease; fifth disease; scarlet fever; whooping cough – all of these conditions sound pretty scary, and the truth is, any kid can get them, especially with school back in session.

But the good news is these ailments are all pretty manageable if you take the proper precautions.

We talked to a pediatrician who specializes in infectious disease to run down the facts.

Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease

“Hand, foot and mouth is caused by a virus that is usually a benign and common virus,” Dr. Frank Esper from Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio told “But this virus is often unrecognized because it’s so mild. A child may have a blister in their mouth and that’s it.”

Esper said for the most part, this virus, most commonly caused by coxsackievirus A16, is spread from child to child due to direct contact with other children that have the virus.

“And these kids can be infectious for weeks – again because it’s so mild,” he said.

Symptoms include a slight fever, sluggishness, sore throat as well as blisters and rash that appear on the hands, feet and mouth.

The encouraging news is, the virus goes away within three to five days on its own – no medication required.

Still, Esper said, it’s always a good idea to call your pediatrician if you’re concerned about your child, especially if they become dehydrated. And make sure you practice frequent hand washing to keep the virus contained.

Whooping Cough

“Whooping cough is the most significant - the one we’re most concerned about,” Esper said.

And this is especially true in light of the recent epidemic in California that has resulted in the deaths of nine infants. Earlier this month, state health officials concluded that at least eight of those cases were not diagnosed early enough, with doctors treating the infants for the common cold or nasal congestion instead.

As a result, the California Department of Public Health recently sent a letter to doctors urging them to treat anyone younger than 6 months old who has trouble breathing as a whooping cough case until proven otherwise.

Some 3,600 whooping cough infections have been reported in California so far this year - a sevenfold jump from the same period last year and the most cases since 1958. All of the children who died were less than 3 months old.

“Infants can’t get the first whooping cough vaccine before 2 months of life… so they are very vulnerable,” Esper said. “The best thing to do is to ensure that everyone is vaccinated in the house - especially if you have a new infant.”

Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is a bacterial infection that causes severe coughing spells and is spread when an infected person sneezes or coughs, sending the bacteria into the air. It can be tough to diagnose because early symptoms are mild and resemble a cold. Since whooping cough can progress rapidly in infants, delayed treatment can increase the risk of death.

Esper said there are also new guidelines being put in place, with California leading the way, to make sure all pregnant women get vaccinated against whooping cough.

“This is a vaccine that has been long overdue for the adult population, and now, we’re ramping it up,” Esper said. “The reality is, antibodies go away overtime, and people need to get boosters to keep up their immunity. The CDC is seriously looking at developing an adult series of vaccines like we do for children.”

RELATED: 9th Infant in California Dies From Whooping Cough

Scarlet Fever

Scarlet fever sounds like a disease out of the Middle Ages, but it’s actually one form of a common bacterial infection we all know as strep throat. The condition is caused by group A strep bacteria, which is very common in hospitals. Esper said scarlet fever is one of the least severe diseases caused by strep.

”It is exactly just as the name describes. So your child will have a fever and the skin will have a rash that will start in the face and trunk and then will spread to the rest of the body. There will also have a ‘sand paper-like’ rash,” he said.

In the early stages of scarlet fever, the tongue can look red and bumpy like a strawberry with a white coating in some spots.

Esper recommends that parents call their doctor, and in most cases, they will prescribe the pink bubble gum-flavored amoxicillin, that a child will take for about 10 days.

But it’s important to note, that if left untreated, scarlet fever can cause vomiting, ear infections, or even pneumonia in extreme cases, according to the Mayo Clinic website.

Fifth Disease

“Fifth disease has always been around,” Esper said.

Also known as slapped cheek syndrome, because the main symptom is a lacy red rash on the face and other parts of the body, fifth disease is a very common childhood illness. It’s caused by the human parovirus B19 and is spread by coughing and sneezing.

There is no vaccine, but an average healthy child who contracts it will have nothing more than a rash and a fever. However, when children who have other conditions get fifth disease, it could be cause for concern.

“If it gets in the right host, especially [a child with] sickle cell anemia - that’s when it causes severe disease and sometimes death. We have to give blood transfusions a lot to kids with sickle cell,” Esper said.

That’s because fifth disease causes the decrease of red blood cells.

“And kids with sickle cell don’t have enough to begin with,” Esper added.

What to Keep in Mind

When you send you kids back to school, it’s not only their brains that are learning – their immune systems are learning as well, Esper pointed out.

“You have to understand, these viruses and bacteria are a part of the world, and we have to deal with them,” he said. “Our body has its own line of defense – the immune system – and once these kids are back in school, they are being exposed to these viruses, and being exposed is how the immune system learns to combat.”

Another simple and easy way to combat these illnesses is to wash your hands. It’s that simple. So teach your kids to get in between their digits with soap and water, for at least the duration of singing happy birthday once to themselves.

“And remember, some of these diseases are so mild that you can give them fluids and their immune systems will take care of the rest,” Esper said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.