Chickenpox is a common disease in childhood, but can also occur in adults. The illness is usually milder in children.
Chickenpox is caused by the Varicella zoster virus. It can be spread either through person-to-person contact, or through sneezing and coughing.
Children can develop chickenpox after being in contact with someone who has shingles (but elderly people can’t get shingles from chickenpox).
Those infected with the chickenpox virus don’t usually have symptoms until 2-3 weeks after contact.
In children, chickenpox usually starts with a general feeling of tiredness and lethargy, as well as a fever and swollen glands. This is soon followed by the outbreak of a rash over the next 3-5 days.
At first, this rash appears as red spots, which develop into crops of small blisters over the chest, back, tummy or face. These soon appear on the rest of the body, and might even occur in the mouth or ears, or on the genitals or eyes. The blisters are extremely itchy, and new ones form as older ones scab over and dry up. The scabs can take several weeks to fall off.
The rash doesn’t leave any scars unless the blisters or scabs are scratched, or if the sores become infected.
Your child might get a fever along with the rash.
Chickenpox symptoms tend to be much milder in children than in adults. Any fever associated with chickenpox is usually more marked in adults.
Chickenpox is contagious from a few days before the rash appears until all the existing sores or blisters have formed scabs and are completely dry. This usually takes around a week.
In healthy children, complications of chickenpox are unlikely, although they do sometimes happen. Complications include infection of skin sores, pneumonia and encephalitis.
Children who have low immunity – for example, children with cancer or who are taking immunosuppressant medication (such as high-dose steroids) – can suffer severe attacks of chickenpox. These children need to be kept away from people with chickenpox or those who might be incubating it.
There’s no cure or specific treatment for chickenpox. Treatment is geared towards relieving the symptoms.
Gauze pads soaked in bicarbonate of soda and water that are then placed over the sores can calm the itch for a while. Creams, such as calamine lotion, might also reduce the itchiness. If your child really can’t stand the itching, your doctor might prescribe an antihistamine medicine or tablets.
Give paracetamol according to directions to help lower fever (but don’t give your child aspirin because of its association with Reye’s Syndrome, a rare but serious illness). In very severe cases, an anti-viral medication called aciclovir might be recommended.
Keep your child away from day care or school until the last blister has scabbed over.
If your child has chickenpox, it can help to keep his nails short – if he does scratch, the sores will be less likely to get infected. You could also put mittens on younger children.
The best way to avoid chickenpox is to have your child immunised.
Chickenpox vaccine is now given free as part of the government immunisation program at 18 months old (unless your child has already had chickenpox) or in year 7 of secondary school (if there’s no prior history of chickenpox vaccination or chickenpox disease). If your child is vaccinated and still gets chickenpox, the disease will be much milder.
The chickenpox vaccination is also recommended for children 14 years and older, as well as for adults who haven’t been vaccinated against chickenpox or who haven’t yet had the disease. This isn’t paid for in the government immunisation program.