Chickenpox is a common childhood illness caused by a virus. It is most common in children aged between two and eight years but can occur at any age and can affect adults. It can occur at any time of year but is much more prevalent in winter and spring.

Symptoms

Symptoms usually appear 10-21 days after being in contact with an infected person. The first signs are usually flu-like symptoms such as a high temperature, headache, sore throat and feeling generally unwell. A rash of small, itchy, red spots appears on the face which quickly spread to the chest, arms and legs. The spots turn into fluid-filled blisters which then burst and scab over. Symptoms are usually quite mild in children and they tend to recover very quickly. However, the effects of the virus can be much more serious in adults.

Causes

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It is highly contagious and can be released into the air in tiny airborne droplets when a person coughs or sneezes. These droplets circulate and can then enter another person's body through their mouth, nose or eyes. The virus can also be passed by close contact. If you shake someone's hand after they have sneezed or wiped their nose and then put your fingers in your mouth, then this can spread the virus. The fluid found inside each blister also contains the virus therefore the illness can be spread via contact with this fluid.A person with chickenpox is infectious from about two days before the rash appears until the last blister has crusted over.Chickenpox is highly contagious, however having chickenpox once usually gives lifelong immunity against it. Following infection, the virus lies dormant causing no symptoms at all. However, sometimes the virus can be reactivated causing shingles which causes lines of painful red spots. Someone who has shingles may infect others with chickenpox but it is not possible to catch shingles.

Avoiding Chickenpox

  • anyone with chickenpox should avoid contact with others until all blisters have crusted over which normally takes around 5-6 days. Children should stay away from school during this time. Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to wait until all the spots have disappearedif you have chickenpox it is especially important to avoid contact with newborn babies, pregnant women and anyone with lowered immunity such as those with cancer, HIV, AIDS or people undergoing chemotherapy or steroid treatmentit is a good idea to machine wash any sponges, flannels or towels that come into contact with the spots to avoid passing the infection on. Use a hot water cycle if possible
  • it is also very important to wash your hands well if they have been in contact with the chickenpox spots

Treatment

In the majority of cases chickenpox clears up on its own without treatment. Simple pain relief treatments containing paracetamol or ibuprofen can help to ease aches and pains and reduce fever (aspirin should NOT be given to anyone with chickenpox due to the risk of a disease called Reye's syndrome).Itching can be a problem although it doesn't seem to affect children as much as adults. Calamine-based preparations can cool the skin and relieve itching. Similarly, crotamiton-based preparations can soothe itching. It is a good idea to wear loose-fitting and to take regular warm baths. Adding a small handful of bicarbonate of soda or oatmeal to the bath water is said to be soothing. You can also sponge the face with lukewarm water to ease irritation and to cool the skin. If the rash is very itchy you could take an antihistamine preparation, available over the counter at your local pharmacy. It is important to try not to scratch because this can lead to scarring.Keep the blisters and surrounding skin clean to prevent infection. Make sure that you drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. It is easy to become dehydrated if you have a high temperature. Sugar-free ice-lollies can be given to older children as they lower temperature and provide necessary fluid.Vulnerable individuals such as newborn babies, pregnant women and anyone with lowered immunity may be given aciclovir which is an antiviral medicine.There is a chickenpox vaccine but again this is only given to vulnerable individuals and healthcare workers who have not had chickenpox and who are likely to come into contact with infected people.

When To See A Doctor

  • If you or your child develop any of the symptoms listed in this leaflet but you are not sure if it is chickenpox you should consult your doctor for adviceIf you are pregnant or think you may be pregnant and you have been in contact with someone who turns out to have the chickenpox virus you should see your doctor immediatelyIf you have a newborn baby whom you suspect has caught chickenpox you should see a doctor immediatelyIf you have a weakened immunity and you are exposed to the chickenpox virus you should see a doctor immediately. You may have lowered immunity if you have cancer, HIV or AIDS or if you are undergoing chemotherapy, steroid treatment or if you are taking immunosuppressant drugs following a transplant
  • If you suspect that you may have shingles you should see your doctor at once

Please note:a person with chickenpox should not go to their doctor's surgery without telephoning first due to the risk of infecting others in high-risk groups.

Additional Information

Leaflets about shingles, calamine, crotamiton, paracetamol and ibuprofen are also available.