This is the first in my series of childhood-illness charts. See more here.
Unless you’re of a certain age, you may have never seen some of the diseases in the chart on the next page. Join the crowd; many younger doctors haven’t either. Measles and rubella, which used to be so common, have been close to wiped out in the U.S. Chickenpox cases have come down to an estimated 80 percent of what they were in the 1990s. (Scarlet fever cases have remained about the same, but they’re still pretty rare compared with fifth disease and roseola.)
So why should you care about them? The words “close to” are key. Measles and rubella are still very prevalent in many countries and crop up in outbreaks in children and adults here in the United States and other developed countries every year. (In fact, my daughter Beth Hubbard, a flight paramedic and owner of the Alaska wilderness medical survival school Solace of Safety, suggested I put together this chart. She plans to utilize it at work.) And you need to recognize scarlet fever since it’s the only one treated with antibiotics.
For disaster or survival situations, you might want to print out the chart too. Disasters can put you in tight quarters with others where diseases can spread easily. And in such a situation, you might be the only person around who can recognize these!
Note About Comments
Some diseases in this article have vaccines, but this post is not about vaccines. It’s about recognizing these diseases. Comments attacking me, vilifying vaccines, or attacking other commenters will be deleted. Click here for my views on vaccines.
In the table on the next page, I’ve given some of the common characteristics of illnesses that often come with rashes. The chart includes three of the now rarer illnesses and three that are still pretty prevalent.
As you’ll see, many begin with fever and general symptoms only. Often it takes a few days to figure out the specific cause. One diagnostic trick we doctors use is to try to discern “what’s going around.” Of course that means the first few cases may be hard to diagnose until a classic rash develops. But all of these viruses are contagious. If you see one and the person has been around other people, you’re likely to see more.
All the diseases in this chart are transmitted in airborne droplets, such as from coughing, sneezing, etc. It’s important wash your hands with soap and water normally but even more so if an infection is going around. Measles, rubella, and chickenpox have vaccines usually given in childhood these days.
If practical, sick people should stay in a separate room, preferably with fresh air, and wear a dust mask when around other people. Anyone in close contact with them should consider an N95 mask. (For examples of both masks, click here.)
At minimum, the sick people should have a cloth or tissue to cover their mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing and should wash their hands frequently with soap and water, waterless soap, or a disinfectant wipe.
Remember, in a situation where medical care is scarce, coming down with most any infection can pose a much bigger problem than usual.
Only scarlet fever has a specific treatment: antibiotics. The others are initially treated with rest, drinking of fluids, easing of symptoms, and time. All have potential complications that are more likely if you don’t follow those suggestions.
But if treatment is so simple, why even try to figure out which disease a person has? For one thing, knowing what the infection is will give you an idea of how long it will last and what complications to look for.
For instance, German measles (rubella) is pretty mild. But it can cause birth defects if a pregnant woman gets the illness. So if someone’s diagnosed with it and there’s a pregnant woman around who’s never had it and doesn’t know if she’s up on the vaccine, she should take preventive precautions. And since German measles can be mild and only 50 percent of people with the disease get a telltale rash, it may not be clear who’s sick and who’s not. So the pregnant woman should virtually isolate herself from anyone who’s been around anyone with the disease.
Another reason to try to determine the specific disease is, with a proper diagnosis, you’ll know whether antibiotics will help or not.
A word about fever: It helps your body fight off illness but can make you miserable. It tends to make you not want to drink fluids and can dehydrate you. And if it goes up fast and high in children it can cause febrile seizures (simple seizures in young children caused by fever—very scary, but they cause no known permanent complications).
Acetaminophen usually brings fever down. (Don’t ever give aspirin to children or teens due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome.) Bathing in lukewarm water will do it also.
But don’t go overboard. Never, ever give more medicine than the recommended dose for age and size. An overdose can do much more damage than fever. And never bathe in cold water or alcohol, which can chill the child and cause more problems than it helps.
For more on treating fever, click here.