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Chicken pox - everything you need to know

Chickenpox - everything you need to know

Worried it’s chicken pox? Understand the causes, symptoms and treatment with our expert overview of the condition

What is chicken pox?

Chicken pox is a common childhood illness that features a rash of itchy red spots that turn into fluid filled blisters and eventually form scabs and drop off. Some children have just a few spots while others are covered in them. It is caused by the varicella zoster virus, is most common in children under 10 and is easily spread in nurseries and schools. It is often confused with measles which has slightly different symptoms.

Ninety per cent of adults are immune to chicken pox because they’ve already had it as a child but if you do have it as an adult the symptoms can be more severe. 

What are the symptoms of chicken pox?

Before the spots appear many children have mild flu-like symptoms – a headache, temperature, feel sick, aching muscles. Then you’ll notice clusters of small itchy red spots commonly behind the ears, on the face, scalp, chest, belly, arms and legs though they can appear anywhere - even in the mouth.

The spots quickly become blisters and are at their itchiest 12-14 hours after they appear. New spots appear in waves for three to five days. They generally clear up within a week or two of scabbing over.

The virus that causes chicken pox lays dormant in your body’s nerve tissues and can return in later life as shingles. It is possible to catch chicken pox from someone who has shingles but not the other way round. 

What causes chicken pox?

Chickenpox is caused by a virus called varicella-zoster (varicella is the medical name for chickenpox). If your baby hasn’t already had chicken pox, there’s a 90% chance of her getting it if she comes in contact with the infection.

This contagious bug is sneezed and breathed around, just like the common cold. 

It takes seven to 21 days for the symptoms of chickenpox to show after your baby comes 
into contact with the virus.

What can you do if your child has chicken pox?

Call your GP so the infection can be noted on your child’s medical records, but don’t take her to the surgery – chickenpox is highly infectious and there’s not much your GP will do anyway. Your baby will be infectious from around two days before the rash appears. 

Your baby will be infectious from around two days before the rash appears

‘Keep your child in quarantine at home until all the blisters have crusted over – usually five to seven days after the first blister appears,’ says Dr Teresa Kilgour, community paediatrician and author of Understanding Children’s Illnesses (£4.95, Family Doctor Publications Ltd).

Teresa advises treating a fever with liquid paracetamol or ibuprofen, and dabbing on calamine lotion to 
ease itching and dry out weeping blisters.

‘To minimise scarring, put scratch mittens on your baby’s hands or cut nails short to stop her damaging her skin and taking heads off the blisters,’ says GP Sarah Levy.

If your toddler has chickenpox, encourage her to cover her mouth if she coughs or sneezes to prevent other people catching the bug.

Sugar-free ice-lollies are particularly soothing if they have blisters in their mouth. The spots on their body will be very itchy so cooling or calamine lotion that you can buy over the counter will help as will loose cotton clothing.

Read next: The chicken pox vaccine - should you vaccinate? 

Worried about chicken pox? When you should phone your GP

Complications are rare in healthy children. If the area surrounding a blister becomes red, sore or hot it could be infected and may require antibiotics.

Very rarely chicken pox can lead to complications of the brain and spinal cord such as meningitis or encephalitis. Signs can include drowsiness, vomiting, headache, a stiff neck, seizures and behavioural changes.

If you notice any of these speak to your GP immediately.

Chicken pox in pregnancy

If you are pregnant and your child contracts chicken pox you should also see your doctor.

If you are infected with chickenpox during the first 28 weeks of your pregnancy there is a small risk that your unborn baby could develop a condition known as foetal varicella syndrome (FVS), which can cause scarring, eye defects (such as cataracts), shortened limbs and brain damage.

More Baby & Toddler Health Advice

How are chicken pox and shingles related? Read more on the NHS

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