Measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox and scarlet fever are commonly considered childhood diseases. However, these infectious diseases can bring dangers and complications, even for adults.
Infectious diseases such as rubella, chickenpox or measles are often grouped together as so-called childhood diseases, as they can spread quickly due to the high risk of infection, so that most people fall ill as a child. However, adults can also go through these diseases, often even with a more severe course, if they are not already ill with them as a child or have been vaccinated against them.
For both children and adults, an infection can be severe and associated with complications or even long-term consequences. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) therefore regularly makes public recommendations.
Measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox and scarlet fever: severe courses are also possible+
Supposed childhood diseases such as chickenpox, measles and rubella are highly contagious, even for adults, and can be associated with complications and long-term consequences.
© Nina Janeckova/Imago
The most well-known childhood diseases are measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox and scarlet fever, each of which is caused by a virus or bacteria such as streptococci and can spread abruptly. Most of them are associated with sometimes high fever and flu-like symptoms as well as painful and itchy skin rashes - raised, red blisters appear in chickenpox, in measles rather large, red spots.
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These viruses and bacteria make us sick
These viruses and bacteria make us sick
Measles infection: What severe courses and long-term effects are possible due to the virus
Since severe courses of measles are not uncommon, vaccination is now compulsory in Germany for all those who attend or work in public institutions such as daycare centers and schools. Employees in refugee shelters, doctors' surgeries and hospitals must also be demonstrably protected against the infectious disease in order to protect others such as babies under one year of age and people with weak immune systems.
Measles progresses in two phases of the disease: first, those affected show fever, cold symptoms such as body aches and sometimes very light-sensitive eyes up to conjunctivitis, especially in adults. In some cases, children and adults develop white coatings on the mucous membrane in the mouth, so-called "Koplik's spots". It is only after two to about four days that the second phase of the disease usually occurs: The whole body – starting with the face and behind the ears – is covered with the typical skin rash, the bright red, non-itchy, merging spots.
Although measles can be without severe symptoms in children, the risk of complications is particularly high in babies and adults. Since measles viruses can severely weaken the immune system for months, secondary diseases such as middle ear and pneumonia are possible. In the worst case, it can lead to a dangerous encephalitis, post-infectious encephalitis, or a measles SSPE, the so-called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, as a long-term consequence of measles, as the RKI warns.
Chickenpox: Highly contagious viral infection that is often more severe in adults
Chickenpox is an infectious disease that primarily affects children. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is a herpes virus. In newborns and people with a weakened immune system, severe courses of the disease can develop, sometimes with a fatal outcome. However, a severe form of chickenpox can also occur in otherwise healthy children. The importance of chickenpox arises mainly from the possible complications, such as the bacterial superinfection of the skin inflammations, usually caused by streptococci.
A very serious complication is varicella pneumonia, a pneumonia that is more common in adults than in children and can develop about three to five days after the onset of chickenpox. Pregnant women are particularly at risk, according to the Robert Koch Institute. Anyone who falls ill with chickenpox can also develop a so-called shingles later on, which can also lead to serious complications such as encephalitis.
Rubella: danger for women in pregnancy, serious complications possible in adults
Pregnant women are also at risk when it comes to possible long-term effects of the rubella virus. The risk to the fetus is particularly high in the first weeks of pregnancy due to a so-called rubella embryopathy. This can lead to a miscarriage or significant disability of the child. The earlier a woman becomes infected with the rubella virus during pregnancy, the more serious the complications. Ultimately, the only protection for the pregnant woman is antibodies that she herself was able to develop due to rubella infection before pregnancy or through vaccination. At the same time, the risk of long-term effects for the unborn child is minimized the more children and adults in the environment can no longer pass on the rubella virus – whether through an infection that has already been overcome or through vaccination against rubella.
The rubella virus is transmitted via the finest droplets when speaking, coughing or direct smear contact. Other possible complications – especially in adolescents and adults – are:
- Otitis media
- Joint pain
- Inflammation of the brain, so-called encephalitis
Mumps: Infection can lead to infertility in men
Transmission of the mumps virus and infection occurs through droplet infection and direct saliva contact, less often through objects contaminated with saliva. The disease initially manifests itself through flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, loss of appetite, headache and body aches as well as fever, followed by a very painful, inflammatory swelling of the parotid glands - unilateral or bilateral. According to the Robert Koch Institute, a number of complications can occur as part of the disease, which become more common with increasing age. A disease of the brain and central nervous system (CNS), which affects males more often than females, is one of the most common complications after salivary gland inflammation.
Another complication exists in adolescent or adult men: 15 to 30 percent of sufferers develop an infection of the testicles (orchitis), which in rare cases can also lead to persistent infertility. In women, on the other hand, mumps infection can lead to inflammation of the mammary gland (mastitis) in about 30 percent of cases or inflammation of the ovaries (oophoritis) in about five percent of cases. As a result, about four percent of patients develop pancreatic disease (pancreatitis), inflammation of the kidneys (nephritis) or inflammation of the heart muscle. Mumps encephalitis can be fatal in 1.5 percent of cases.
Scarlet fever: Streptococcal infection can cause long-term effects in adults
Scarlet fever is considered a classic childhood disease and is one of the most common bacterial infectious diseases in this age group, according to the Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA). Scarlet fever is highly contagious and is caused by so-called A streptococci. Typical symptoms are a severe sore throat and a skin rash. The bacteria develop various toxins, called toxins, which makes it possible to get sick with scarlet fever several times, especially in the colder season between October and March. If a scarlet fever infection is not treated with antibiotics as quickly as possible, it can lead to serious complications and long-term consequences, especially in adults. These include, for example, chronic joint problems (polyarthritis), pneumonia, inflammation of the heart muscle (endocarditis), kidney damage, meningitis or rheumatic fever, as Dr. Ursula Marschall, senior physician at BARMER, explains.
This article contains only general information on the respective health topic and is therefore not intended for self-diagnosis, treatment or medication. It is in no way a substitute for a visit to the doctor. Unfortunately, individual questions about clinical pictures may not be answered by our editors.
Category list image: © Nina Janeckova/Imago