What is it?
Chickenpox, medically known as varicella, is an infection caused by a virus called the varicella-zoster virus. It spreads quickly and easily through the coughs and sneezes of someone who is infected, which is why it’s common for schoolchildren.
What are the symptoms of chickenpox?
Chickenpox usually starts with flu-like symptoms, which include:
- aching muscles,
- a loss of appetite,
- high temperature.
This usually starts one to two days before an itchy red rash appears. These red, itchy spots can turn into fluid-filled blisters.
Some children may only have a few spots, while others may be covered from head to toe. The most common areas are behind the ears, on the chest, stomach, arms and legs as well as appearing on the face and scalp.
The blisters then crust over to form scabs, which will eventually fall off naturally, usually within one to two weeks after the start of the fever-like symptoms.
How do I look after a child with chickenpox?
“The main thing you can do,” explains GP Dr Lowri Kew, “is treat the symptoms. Use paracetamol for a high temperature (avoid ibuprofen-based pain medication, as there is evidence that it may increase the risk of more serious skin infection). And try antihistamines and calamine lotion or ointment to help ease itching.
“Adding bicarbonate of soda to bath water may also help soothe your baby’s itching.”
During the fever stage, make sure your child is wearing loose-fitting garments to help stop the skin from becoming sore and irritated. It’s also important to give your child lots of fluids and avoid giving him any salty food that may make his mouth sore, as some children will get chickenpox spots in there too.
Your hardest job is to try to stop your child scratching the spots, or they may be left with scarring. Keep your child’s fingernails clean and short, and if you find your child is scratching away at night, you could even try placing gloves over your child’s hands at night – if they agree!
Occasionally the rash may become infected – you’ll usually notice a rise in your baby’s temperature and redness around a spot. If this happens, antibiotics and a visit to the doctor may be needed. If your baby has immunity problems, the infection can be severe and will probably require early treatment to stop or minimise it.
Generally, when your child has chickenpox he should be kept away from others as much as possible – no childcare or nursery until his lesions have scabbed over.
Also, tell anyone coming to see you that your child has chickenpox. Avoid other people – you never know who is on steroids (which can suppress immunity, so put that person at risk of a more severe form of chickenpox) or who is pregnant.
How common is chickenpox?
Chickenpox is most common in children under 10 and is so common that 90% of adults are actually immune to the condition because they’ve had it before, says the NHS.
Children will more than likely catch the infection throughout winter and spring, particularly between the months of March and May.
Do you need to take your child to the doctor?
Chickenpox is a fairly obvious infection because the red spots are very distinctive. Chickenpox, for most children, will recover on its own so there’s no need to take them to the doctor.
However, some children become more seriously ill when they develop the infection. Go to your doctor straight away if any of your child’s blisters become infected or if they have difficulty breathing.
Should your child go to school?
No. Doctors suggest you keep your child off school until the spots have all crusted over, to prevent the infection from spreading. This usually takes five or six days after the rash begins.
Make sure you wash any infected clothing or bedding regularly, to prevent anyone else in your household from getting the infection.
You should also try to keep your child away from public areas as some people, who may or may not have had chickenpox before, are at a higher risk, like pregnant women or anyone with a weakened immune system.
“My boys were infected with chickenpox within two weeks of each other”
“Sam developed chickenpox on the way to our holiday in Cornwall. He had one spot when we left, and as we travelled the spots just kept appearing until he was covered. He was itchy and a bit miserable but we dosed him up with child paracetamol and an antihistamine and he was fine.
“Two weeks later his brother got it, too. He was still in nappies and had a lot of spots in the nappy area, which drove him mad – he spent a lot of time in the bath to keep cool.”
Rosy, 25, mum to Brian, 3, and Eddie, 1