Chickenpox is a common illness among children, particularly those under age 12. It is something parents are always looking out for. And although many of us had it as children, we may not be up-to-date on all the facts. Here is a helpful guide of how to understand better what chickenpox is, how to spot the symptoms and how to treat it. Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Chickenpox:
Sign up for our free monthly newsletter stuffed full of ideas, competitions and offers. PS Did we mention it’s free?
My two daughters ended up having chickenpox at the same time because the youngest contracted it at nursery and then the eldest got it from her. We called it “The Itchy and Scratchy Show” (ref. The Simpsons) to try to get them to laugh about it while they were going through it!
Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Chickenpox
What is Chickenpox?
Chicken pox is a well-known childhood illness caused by a virus known as the varicella-zoster virus. Most people are familiar with chickenpox.
Just a mention of it conjures images of spots that can cover your entire body and patches of lotion that might help to sooth the itch.
How Common is Chickenpox?
Chickenpox is most common in children under 10 years old and in fact, chickenpox is so common in childhood that 90% of adults are immune to the condition because they’ve had it before.
Outbreaks of chickenpox are particularly common between March and May.
How does Chickenpox Spread?
Chickenpox is a highly contagious virus and can spread quickly through places like schools and childcare facilities. It’s infectious before you show any symptoms, so you could be infecting people without even knowing!
Chickenpox is spread in the same ways as colds and flu. It’s contained in the millions of tiny droplets that come out of the nose and mouth when an infected person sneezes or coughs. You can then become infected with the virus by breathing in these droplets from the air.
If a person comes in contact with the virus and hasn’t previously had the virus, their immune system hasn’t built up its defences and it is very likely that they will get the chickenpox.
You might also want to read: 5 Useful Tips on Helping Your Child Cope With Pain
The main symptom of chickenpox is an itchy blister rash which appears 10 to 21 days after exposure to the virus. The spots usually last about five to 10 days.
Your child may have some mild flu-like symptoms, before the rash appears, including:
- feeling sick
- a high temperature (fever) of 38ºC (100.4ºF) or over
- aching, painful muscles
- generally feeling unwell
- loss of appetite
Some children and adults may only have a few spots, but others are covered from head to toe. The spots normally appear in clusters and tend to be:
- behind the ears
- on the face
- over the scalp
- under the arms
- on the chest and stomach
- on the arms and legs
The spots can be anywhere on the body, even inside the ears and mouth, on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet and inside the nappy area.
Although the rash starts as small, itchy red spots, after about 12-14 hours the spots develop a blister on top and become intensely itchy.
After a day or two, the fluid in the blisters gets cloudy and they begin to dry out and crust over.
Then after one to two weeks, the crusting skin will fall off naturally.
New spots can keep appearing in waves for three to five days after the rash begins. So clusters of spots may be at different stages of blistering or drying out.
The Cost of Chickenpox
For most children who get chickenpox, it’s a short-term but uncomfortable illness. Besides making your child miserable and itchy, chickenpox can impact parents and care-givers who may have to take time off work or cover the cost of extra child-care while their child is off sick from school.
Complications from Chickenpox
Most healthy children (and adults) recover from chickenpox with no lasting ill-effects simply by resting, just as with a cold or flu. But some children and adults are unlucky and have a more severe bout than usual.
The most frequent complication is infection when those itchy spots become infected with bacteria.
While complications are rare, they can include superinfection, skin-scarring, encephalitis, pneumonia, glomerulonephritis, myocarditis, Reye’s syndrome, hepatitis and coagulopathy.
People who are most at risk of developing complications are adults who get chickenpox, pregnant women, babies under four weeks old and people who have a weakened immune system.
If you’re pregnant, chickenpox can occasionally cause complications. For example, your risk of developing pneumonia is slightly higher, especially if you smoke. The further you are into your pregnancy, the more serious the risk of pneumonia tends to be.
If you contract chickenpox and you have a weakened immune system, complications can include: pneumonia, septicaemia (blood poisoning) and meningitis.
Contact your GP right away if your child develops any abnormal symptoms, for example:
- if the skin surrounding the blisters becomes red and painful
- if you or your child start to get pain in the chest or have difficulty breathing
- if your child is very unwell and you are concerned
Chickenpox and Shingles
The chickenpox virus never leaves the body. It lies dormant and years later, can reactivate in adulthood and result in a painful rash called Shingles.
How Can You Treat Chickenpox?
There is no cure for chickenpox. The virus usually clears up by itself without any treatment. However, there are ways of easing the itch and discomfort.
If your child is in pain or has a fever (high temperature), you can give them a mild painkiller, such as paracetamol. Paracetamol is the preferred painkiller for treating the associated symptoms of chickenpox. This is due to a very small risk of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, causing adverse skin reactions during chickenpox.
If you’re pregnant and need to take painkillers, then paracetamol is the first choice. You can use it at any stage of pregnancy.
Keep your child hydrated
It is important for children (and adults) with chickenpox to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Sugar-free ice-lollies are a good way of getting fluids into children. They also help to soothe a sore mouth that has chickenpox spots in it.
Avoid any food that may make the mouth sore, such as salty foods. Soup is easy to swallow as long as it is not too hot.
Stop the scratching
Don’t scratch! If you don’t scratch, the spots will heal faster and it will help to protect against infection. While chickenpox can be incredibly itchy, it’s important for children (and adults) to not scratch the spots so as to avoid future scarring.
- One way of stopping scratching is to keep fingernails clean and short. You can also put socks over your child’s hands at night to stop them scratching the rash as they sleep.
- If your child’s skin is very itchy or sore, try using calamine lotion or cooling gels. These are available in pharmacies and are very safe to use. They have a soothing, cooling effect.
- A stronger medicine called chlorphenamine can be prescribed by your GP to relieve itching. It’s taken by mouth and is suitable for children over one year old.
If your child has a fever, or if their skin is sore and aggravated, then here are some things that can help:
- Cool clothing e.g. loose-fitting, smooth, cotton fabrics are best and will help stop the skin from becoming sore and irritated.
- Make sure the air is clean and cool, as heat and sweat exacerbate the itching.
- A daily shower or bath will help keep the skin fresh and clean.
- Avoid sponging them down with cool water. This can make your child too cold, and it may make them shiver.
Stay at home
In order to avoid infections and infecting others, it’s best if you remain at home until all lesions dry up and become scabs.
Over to you now. Have you or your family been affected by chickenpox? Please let us know in the comments box below.