Chickenpox is a very contagious infection that's caused by the varicella zoster virus. Most children get it at some point, usually under the age of 10, but occasionally adults can too.
What are the symptoms of chickenpox?
The virus produces a rash of small, itchy red spots that turn into fluid-filled blisters. The blisters then dry out, forming scabs that eventually drop off.
The rash can be widespread anywhere on the head and body or may only show up as a few spots. They are most likely to appear on the face, ears and scalp, under the arms, on the chest and belly, and on the arms and legs.
Symptoms first appear one to three weeks after infection and often start with a mild fever or headache and, in adult cases, more flu-like symptoms such as body aches.
Your child will be contagious from about two days before the rash appears until all the blisters have fully crusted over, which is usually five to six days after the start of the rash.
Is chickenpox serious?
In most childhood cases, chickenpox isn't serious and usually gets better on its own.
As it's contagious, you should keep your child at home until all the blisters have scabbed over, so they can avoid coming into contact with people who could catch it.
This is especially important for protecting people who are at risk of serious complications from chickenpox, like newborn babies, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system.
How can you help a child with chickenpox?
If you're worried, speak to your pharmacist or Doctor
Here are some ways you can help soothe your child:
- Encourage them to drink plenty of liquids to avoid dehydration
- Bathe them in cool water (and gently pat them dry afterwards)
- Paracetamol may help with the fever or pain – your pharmacist will be able to advise you on this. Avoid giving them ibuprofen, unless advised by your doctor
- Anti-histamines may help with the itching – your pharmacist can advise you on suitability and dosage
- Cooling creams and gels may also provide some relief
Some children can become more seriously ill with chickenpox. Contact your Doctor immediately if you’re concerned, your child's symptoms get worse, they show any unusual new symptoms, or if you think your newborn baby has chickenpox.
How can I avoid chickenpox blisters getting infected?
The most common complication of chickenpox is infected blisters due to scratching. This can leave permanent scars.
In order to avoid this, keep your child's fingernails short and apply a cooling gel to the spots to relieve the itching. You can get these at your pharmacy. You can also get special anti-scratch mittens for little ones – socks will serve the same purpose for older children.
If the blisters do become infected (for example, if the area around them is red or swollen or if there is pus or fluid oozing out), see your doctor immediately.
Chickenpox as an adult
Adult cases of chickenpox tend to be more severe with a higher risk of complications.
If you’re an adult and have chickenpox, you may need an antiviral medicine to reduce the effects of chickenpox and to help prevent complications. This needs to be taken within 24 hours of the rash appearing in order for it to be effective. Ask for an urgent Doctor appointment if this is the case.
You can treat any flu-like symptoms with paracetamol and use calamine lotion on the blisters to soothe the itching. Again, it's important to stay away from public places until the spots have crusted over, to minimise the risk of spreading the infection.
Speak to your doctor if symptoms get worse or other more serious symptoms develop.
Will my child get chickenpox again?
It’s extremely rare to get chickenpox more than once. Once you've had the infection, you usually become immune to catching it again. However, the virus stays dormant inside the nerve cells and can sometimes reactivate later as an adult, in the form of shingles.
- Keep your child at home to avoid spreading the infection
- Ease itching with calamine lotion or a soothing gel
- Speak to your doctor if symptoms worsen or if the blisters get infected.