27 Nov Chickenpox: a common viral illness but risky too
Chickenpox is a mild and common childhood illness. However, pregnant women, newborn babies and people with a weakened immune system may also be at risk.
Chickenpox is highly contagious to people who have never had chickenpox before, or who have not been vaccinated. You can also catch the virus by handling items and surfaces that have been contaminated, then transferring the virus to yourself by touching your face. Children can develop chickenpox after being in contact with someone who has shingles. Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles often much later in life.
What to look for
A common myth is that exposure to chickenpox carries no risk and presents no risk to humans. However, the complications of chickenpox can be so serious that it has now been added to the childhood immunisation schedule.
You or your child should not usually need any medical tests to diagnose chickenpox. You can be pretty sure that it is chickenpox if there are the key symptoms of a mild fever followed by an itchy rash, blisters and scabs. If you’re still uncertain about what is causing the symptoms, see your doctor.
Chickenpox spots are usually distinctive enough to distinguish from other rashes. Occasionally, they can be easily confused with other conditions that affect the skin, such as insect bites or scabies (a contagious skin condition that causes intense itching).
The incubation period
Chickenpox symptoms take 10 and 21 days (14 to 16 days on average) to show after infection. The most infectious time is one to two days before the rash appears, but it continues to be infectious until all the blisters have crusted over.
Treatment is geared towards relieving the symptoms
- Give your child plenty to drink
- Use paracetamol to relieve the fever and discomfort
- Baths, loose comfortable clothes and calamine lotion can all ease the itchiness. Gauze pads soaked in bicarbonate of soda and water that are then placed over the sores can calm the itch for a while. Your pharmacy can also give some suggestions
- Try to stop your child scratching or picking at their spots, as this will increase the risk of scarring. It’s hard for children to do this, so give them plenty of praise and encouragement. Distractions such as TV, are good for taking their mind off the itching
- Let the school or nursery know that your child is ill in case other children are at risk. Keep your child away from day care or school until the last blister has scabbed over
- Keep your child away from anyone who is pregnant or trying to get pregnant. If your child had contact with a pregnant woman just before they became unwell, let the woman know about the chickenpox (and suggest that she sees her doctor or midwife). In women who’ve never had chickenpox, catching the illness in pregnancy can cause miscarriage or the baby may be born with chickenpox
Chickenpox can be dangerous to anyone who is:
- has a weakened immune system
- a baby less than four weeks old
Chickenpox in these instances can cause serious complications if left untreated. It is essential to seek medical advice so that you can receive any necessary treatment.
When to contact your doctor
See your doctor if you’re not sure whether you or your child have chickenpox.
If you or your child are exposed to chicken pox
If you have had chickenpox in the past, then it is extremely unlikely that you will develop chickenpox for a second time. If you’ve never had chickenpox, or you’re unsure whether you’ve had it, then you may need an immunity test. This is a blood test that checks whether you are producing the antibodies to the chickenpox virus.
If your blood test result shows that you have the antibodies, you’ll be naturally protected from the virus. If you don’t have the antibodies, then you’ll need to be monitored closely to see if you develop chickenpox symptoms. A post-exposure vaccination is available and can reduce the risk of developing chicken pox.