Chickenpox is a contagious disease that’s caused by the Varicella zoster virus.
Chickenpox can spread through sneezing, coughing and touching someone with chickenpox.
After someone has had chickenpox, the virus ‘sleeps’ in their nerve cells. The virus can ‘wake up’ up at a later stage and cause shingles. People with shingles can also spread the virus and cause chickenpox.
Symptoms of chickenpox
Symptoms usually start appearing 2-3 weeks after infection with chickenpox virus.
In children, the first symptoms are usually a general feeling of tiredness, along with fever, loss of appetite and swollen glands. Over the next 1-2 days, a rash breaks out.
At first, this rash appears as spots that appear brown, purple or grey on darker skin and red on lighter skin. The spots develop into crops of small blisters over the chest, back, tummy or face. These soon appear on the rest of the body. The blisters are extremely itchy, and new ones form as older ones scab over. Most scabs crust over after a week, but they can take several weeks to fall off.
Scarring can happen if children scratch the blisters or scabs, or the sores get infected.
Chickenpox symptoms tend to be much milder in children than in adults.
Chickenpox is contagious from 2 days before the rash appears until all blisters have formed scabs and are completely dry. This usually takes around a week.
Chickenpox complications and risks
If your child is otherwise healthy, they’re most likely to have an itchy rash but no other complications.
Rarely, chickenpox sores can get infected with bacteria. The bacteria can go on to cause other diseases like pneumonia and encephalitis.
There are some children who are at high risk if they come into contact with chickenpox. The virus can affect them severely. These children include:
- new babies
- children who have low immunity
- children with cancer
- children who are taking immunosuppressant medication like high-dose corticosteroids.
These children need to be kept away from people with chickenpox or people who might have been infected with chickenpox but aren’t yet showing symptoms.
Medical help for chickenpox symptoms or contact with chickenpox
You should take your child to the GP if you think your child might have chickenpox.
You should also talk with your GP if your child is in one of a high-risk groups above and has been in contact with someone who could have chickenpox.
You should take your child to your nearest hospital emergency department if your child has chickenpox and:
- becomes drowsy
- has a severe headache, difficulty breathing or difficulty looking at bright lights.
Pregnant women are also at risk and should see a GP.
You know your child best. If your child seems unwell, trust your instincts and seek medical attention.
Your GP will look at your child’s rash and other symptoms to diagnose chickenpox. They might also take a swab from one of the blisters to confirm your child has chickenpox.
Treatment for chickenpox
If your child has chickenpox, you can help them feel better by treating symptoms like itch and fever.
To help with the itch, soak gauze pads in bicarbonate of soda and water and put the pads over the sores. Creams like calamine lotion might also help. If your child really can’t stand the itching, your doctor might prescribe an antihistamine medicine.
Give paracetamol or ibuprofen according to directions if your child is uncomfortable with a fever.
Make sure your child gets plenty of fluids and rest.
If your child has chickenpox, it can help to keep their nails short. If your child scratches their sores, the sores are less likely to get infected. You could also put mittens on younger children.
Children who have very severe chickenpox and who need to be hospitalised might be given anti-viral medicine.
Don’t give aspirin to children under 12 years unless it’s prescribed by a doctor. Aspirin can make your child susceptible to Reye’s syndrome, a rare but potentially deadly illness. If you’re giving your child any over-the-counter medicines, check with your pharmacist or doctor to make sure these have no aspirin.
The best way to avoid chickenpox is to have your child immunised and keep up with immunisation in the teenage years.
As part of the Australian National Immunisation Program (NIP), your child will get free immunisation against chickenpox at 18 months old. The NIP also funds catch-up immunisations if your child wasn’t immunised when they were younger.
Immunisation for chickenpox is around 90% effective. This means that, rarely, some children still catch chickenpox even if they’ve been immunised. But the illness tends to be shorter in immunised children, and the skin spots might not turn into blisters.
People with shingles should keep their rash covered to reduce the risk of passing the virus on to children.
Keep your child away from child care, preschool or school until the last blister has scabbed over.