THE number of cases of the highly-contagious scarlet fever have soared to a 24-year-high, figures show.

Health officials said that there have been widespread increases in the number of cases in England.

During February there were significantly more cases of the bacterial illness than would normally be expected for this time of year, according to Public Health England (PHE).

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In the four weeks to February 23, health officials were notified of 868 cases of scarlet fever - over the last four years experts have noted an average of 444 cases.

Officials said that the figure is at its highest for this time of year since 1990.

There were 67 cases in the North-East compared to 53 for the same four week period in 2013, while there were 108 cases in Yorkshire and Humber compared to 95 in 2013.

A PHE spokeswoman said that there are seasonal rises in scarlet fever between December and April each year.

Every few years there is also a notable increase in cases and the latest bout of infections is likely to be part of that cycle, she added.

The organisation has warned health officials to be mindful of the current rise in figures when treating patients.

The most noticeable symptom of scarlet fever is a distinctive pink-red rash that feels like sandpaper to touch.

Other symptoms include a high temperature, a flushed face and a red, swollen tongue.

It is extremely contagious and can be caught by breathing in bacteria from an infected persons coughs and sneezes, touching the skin of a person with a streptococcal skin infection and sharing contaminated towels, baths, clothes or bed linen.

Symptoms usually clear up after a week and in the majority of cases remain reasonably mild providing a course of antibiotics is completed to reduce the risk of complications.