The Latin name for fifth disease is erythema infectiosum, meaning infectious redness. It is also called the "slapped cheek disease" because, when the bright red rash first appears on the cheeks, it looks as if the face has been slapped. Anyone can get the disease, but it occurs more frequently in school-aged children. The disease is usually mild, and both children and adults usually recover quickly without complications. Some individuals exhibit no symptoms and never even feel ill.
The virus that causes fifth disease lives in the nose, mouth, and throat of an infected person; therefore, the virus can be spread through the air by coughing and sneezing. It can also be spread through shared drinking glasses and eating utensils.
Fifth disease is very common in children between the ages of five and 15. Studies show that although 40 percent to 60 percent of adults worldwide have laboratory evidence of a past parvovirus B19 infection, most of these adults cannot remember having had symptoms of fifth disease. This fact leads medical experts to believe that most people with parvovirus B19 infection have either very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.
Fifth disease occurs everywhere in the world. Outbreaks of parvovirus tend to occur in the late winter and early spring, but there may also be sporadic cases of the disease any time throughout the year.
In households where a child has fifth disease, another family member who has not previously had fifth disease has about a 50 percent chance of also getting the infection, while classmates of a child with fifth disease have about a 60 percent chance of getting the disease.