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Rash, Swollen Glands, and Painful Swollen Joints... What is this?! Our Experience with Fifth Disease.

Updated on August 23, 2014
Fifth disease can pass through children relatively mildly while causing more severe symptoms in adults.
Fifth disease can pass through children relatively mildly while causing more severe symptoms in adults. | Source

Ever hear of Fifth disease? You're about to.

My husband is like a living, walking mushroom. On top of being a pretty "Fun-Guy", occasionally he breaks out into this blotchy splotchy fungus rash. It's not contagious.

So when he broke out into a spontaneous rash a couple weeks ago, I assumed he was just under another fungus attack. This time though the rash covered more of his arms and face than usual. He was also having trouble opening and closing his hands, which I also went ahead and assumed was from the previous two days he spent with the rototillers digging a fresh garden. Making a new garden is hard work, no joke. His knuckles looked swollen and he couldn't move his arms so well, either.

The next day was pretty much the same, though the rash was nearly gone - sore, swollen joints in the hands and fingers, and a general pain and soreness through all the joints in his body. But that night, with neck glands the size of golf balls, my husband's fever spiked to over 105 degrees F. 105.1! At this point I quit assuming things and got very scared. We immediately and uncomfortably jammed ice packs in all his crevices, alternated ibuprofen and acetaminophen, and soon brought the fever down below 103. By now the joint pain had blown up throughout his body, and he flat out couldn't move.

I spent the next day helping him dress and undress. His temperature had returned to normal, but by now my husband couldn't lift his arms above his chest. He was also kind of a gray color and clenched his teeth from jaw pain when we tried to talk. But with no vomiting, nausea, or fever, and with the OTC pain meds not affecting his pain at all, I was at a loss about what to do. I took the kids to the zoo for the day and let him rest.

We returned from a full day of cotton candy, popcorn, animals and train rides to find my husband still asleep in the living room chair. He hadn't drank the bottle of water I left him and was in some of the most severe pain he can ever remember. I put the kids to bed and he, without insurance, reluctantly drove himself to the local health clinic. We've learned from experience that an emergency room diagnosis is different for those with insurance than for those without - like broken bones suddenly aren't broken anymore - but we really didn't know what else to do.

At the hospital they did a test for strep throat. The result was negative. The doctor quickly mentioned there was some sort of virus going around associated with joint pain, told him he must have that, and sent him home.

My husband came home and tried to go to bed. He was thrashing and rolling over and over, seemingly trying to burrow himself into the mattress. I touched his shoulder, trying to calm him down. What WAS this?!

"Easy, honey", I whispered.

He immediately jumped out of bed, leaving behind a puddle of sweat. He probably would've jumped out of his skin if he could have. He tried to drink water, but was in too much pain to swallow and so he choked. He couldn't get fluids in and was in more pain and misery than ever. He couldn't sit, couldn't stand, couldn't move.

His sister - a registered nurse - was on night shift at a local reputable hospital. This was getting expensive, but then again, he could be dying - so back to the E.R. he went. After one vicodin and a series of blood tests, he was discharged. The doctors were stumped.

By the fourth day of symptoms, the whole family was pretty concerned. Now on his third day of sleeping, he had developed a sore throat and loose bowels. Worried minds try to rationalize, and we tried coming up with theories as to what this condition could be. His mother thought maybe this had something to do with the mushroom compost he had recently used to fertilize our new garden. His father figured maybe he'd cut himself on something rusty and his tetanus shot wasn't up-to-date. My husband and I both figured it could be Lyme Disease since he field dresses and butchers his deer himself. But on a Sunday with no test results, guessing was all we could do.

By day five, he was finally beginning to experience some relief of his joint pain. He got up, got dressed, and worked in the yard for most of the day. The more he worked, the better he felt. Maybe this was arthritis - I mean, I call him my "old man", but he's only 35 years old. Still, he smokes a pack and day and likes a cold and frosty one (or a few) in the evening, so maybe he's ahead of the game. We called the E.R. for test results but missed the time window - we'd have to call back tomorrow.

Day six was even better. Up and moving again, the joint pain had receded to just his hands, upper arms/shoulders, knees and feet. He could move again and so he did all day, fishing and gardening.

When we called for his test results, we were told they were all negative. This included tests for Lyme Disease and blood infections. While we were relieved he didn't have the diseases we feared he might, and that miraculously his condition was improving, we were still baffled at what had happened here.

Each day after, his pain lessened and lessened. My husband went back to work and his normal routine. Still not sure what the h*ll had overtaken our house the week prior, we went about business as usual for a few days.

Then my 8-year-old daughter broke out into a rash. It covered both her cheeks and one of her arms, and spotted the other. She looked like she had been slapped in the face!

Not willing to let this illness run its course unmonitored through my precious little darling, I called the doctor and got her an appointment that very hour. I told her pediatrician about my husband's illness, that the first E.R. told him he had a virus, and how my 8-year-old had no other symptoms other than this rash.

"Mm hmm" said the doctor. "She has a virus too. Fifth disease. Nothing you can do. It will be gone in two to four weeks."

I asked if there was anything else I should do. Change the bed sheets? Keep her away from people? Avoid harsh chemicals like sunscreen?

"No", he answered casually. "Benedryl for itch and Tylenol for fever. Once the rash breaks out, she's no longer contagious."

In good spirits, she and I headed home. I now had a name, "Fifth Disease", which I remember her second-grade teacher telling me was going around their school a few weeks prior. She called it something like "hand, foot and mouth disease". Though both common viral illnesses, my research tells me these two are similar but not exactly the same. Her teacher also told me it was a virus, that the main symptom is a rash that looks like the child got slapped in the face, and is transmitted through bodily fluids like mucus.

Turns out, Fifth Disease in children is a small deal. Nearly half of us may have had it as children and not even known it. However, Fifth Disease in adults in a slightly larger deal. Along with the slapped-cheek rash, Fifth Disease can also cause swollen glands, sore throat, fever, lethargy, diarrhea, and painful, swollen joints in the hands, wrists, knees and ankles. (Source:

BINGO! And did it ever.

Now a week and a half after my husband's painful symptoms, I'm easily caring for two virally-infected loves of mine with very minor symptoms that are thankfully on their way out. For all the hospital money it'll cost us, I hope sharing our pricey experience can shed some light on this mysterious illness for you, should you be searching for some possible explanations. Be well! And we'll do the same.


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    • Lee Tea profile image

      Lee Tea 3 years ago from Erie, PA too! Hadn't really thought of that.

    • Terrie Schultz profile image

      Terrie Schultz 3 years ago from United States

      That sounds horrible! I'm glad you didn't catch it!