All about chicken pox

Chicken pox is a highly contagious virus characterised by a red, itchy rash. The virus that causes chicken pox is the same virus that causes shingles in adults.

Chicken pox is most common in kids from two to ten years old. For most children, chicken pox is a mild illness, but there’s no way to know which children will have a mild form of the illness and which children will have a severe case.

What causes chicken pox?

Chicken pox is caused by the varicella virus or varicella zoster virus. Chicken pox is highly contagious and is spread easily through coughing and sneezing in the early stages and through contact with the fluid from the broken blisters of the rash in the later stages of the illness.

Is chicken pox serious?

Chicken pox is not serious for most children, although they will likely be very miserable while the blisters are appearing and healing. However, some kids who get chicken pox can develop pneumonia, encephalitis, or a bacterial infection of the skin. Adults who have had chicken pox as children can experience a painful reactivation of the virus called shingles. Rarely, complications of a chicken pox infection can be fatal. Most people who have chicken pox experience some scarring from the pox, especially if they have been scratched. 

Chicken pox is serious for people who are pregnant or who have reduced immunity. 

Can I prevent chicken pox?

It’s sometimes hard to know when your child has been exposed to chickenpox because other children are contagious 1 to 2 days before the blisters develop.

Chickenpox can be prevented through a childhood vaccination given when your child is aged 15 months. Anyone who does not have immunity to the virus due to prior exposure should be vaccinated. Avoid other children who have chickenpox if your child has not been vaccinated

How do I know if my child has chicken pox?

It can take up to three weeks after exposure for your child to show symptoms of chicken pox. Initial symptoms include a fever, runny nose, and a general feeling of being unwell along with aches and pains. Three to four days after the first symptoms appear, your child will start to develop a rash. The rash usually starts on the torso and may spread across his entire body. While some kids get just a few spots, others are covered from head to toe, including particularly tender places like the bottom, eyes, scalp and mouth. Adults will generally have Chicken pox for 3-7 days and children are usually ill for about 5-10 days.

How do I treat chicken pox?

Children react in a variety of ways to chickenpox. Some kids seem unaffected by the illness, but others are completely miserable until the itchy rash goes away. There’s not much you can do but keep your child as comfortable as possible until the illness has run its course. Try putting Calomine lotion on the spots to ease itching, or give your child oatmeal or baking soda baths. Use paracetamol for fever. Keep your child from scratching to avoid scarring. You can put mittens on very young children to avoid scratching – trim your child’s fingernails and ensure they wash there hands often to prevent the rash becoming infected if they were to scratch.

Your child will be contagious for about two days before spots appear and about a week after they appear as long as they are scabbed over. So, keep him away from other kids or anyone who has not had chickenpox or been vaccinated during that time.

Should I call the doctor?

Call your child’s doctor right away if they:

  • have a very high fever
  • trouble breathing
  • is vomiting a lot
  • appear lethargic, confused or very sleepy
  • have infected blisters 
  • have a stiff neck
  • are sensitive to light
  • convulsions

If you are unsure what to do, call Healthline on 0800 611 116.

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