Chickenpox is a contagious disease that's caused by the Varicella zoster virus.
Chickenpox can spread through:
- direct physical contact with someone who has chickenpox
- sneezing and coughing
- direct physical contact with someone who has shingles.
Like chickenpox, shingles is caused by the Varicella zoster virus. If you've previously had chickenpox and the virus is reactivated, you can get shingles.
Symptoms of chickenpox
Children infected with the chickenpox virus don't usually have symptoms until 2-3 weeks after contact.
In children, the illness usually starts with a general feeling of tiredness, as well as a fever and swollen glands. Over the next 3-5 days, a rash breaks out.
At first, this rash appears as red spots, which develop into crops of small blisters over the chest, back, tummy or face. These soon appear on the rest of the body, and might even come up in the mouth or ears, or on the genitals or eyes. The blisters are extremely itchy, and new ones form as older ones scab over and dry up. The scabs can take several weeks to fall off.
The rash doesn't leave any scars unless the blisters or scabs are scratched, or the sores get infected.
Chickenpox symptoms tend to be much milder in children than in adults.
Chickenpox is contagious from two days before the rash appears until all existing sores or blisters have formed scabs and are completely dry. This usually takes around a week.
Chickenpox complications and risks
Healthy children mostly have an itchy rash but no other complications. Rarely, chickenpox sores can get infected with bacteria. The bacteria can go on to cause other diseases like pneumonia and encephalitis.
There are some children who are at high risk if they come into contact with chickenpox. The virus can affect them very severely. These children include:
- new babies
- unimmunised children
- children who have low immunity
- children with cancer
- children who are taking immunosuppressant medication like high-dose corticosteroids.
These children need to be kept away from people with chickenpox or people who might have been infected with chickenpox but aren't yet showing symptoms.
Does your child need to see a doctor about chickenpox?
You should take your child to the GP if you're worried your child might have chickenpox.
You should also talk with your GP if your child is in one of a high-risk groups above and has been in contact with someone who could have chickenpox.
Women who are pregnant are also at high risk and should see a GP.
Treatment for chickenpox
Children with chickenpox usually need treatment only to relieve symptoms like itch and fever.
To help with the itch, soak gauze pads in bicarbonate of soda and water and put the pads over the sores. Creams like calamine lotion might also help. If your child really can't stand the itching, your doctor might prescribe an antihistamine medicine.
Give paracetamol according to directions if your child is miserable with a fever.
Make sure your child gets plenty of fluids and rest.
If your child has chickenpox, it can help to keep his nails short. This way, if he does scratch, the sores are less likely to get infected. You could also put mittens on younger children.
Children who have very severe chickenpox and who need to be hospitalised might be given anti-viral medication, most commonly acyclovir.
Keep your child away from child care, preschool or school until the last blister has scabbed over.
Don't give your child aspirin. Children treated with aspirin might develop Reye's syndrome, a rare but very serious condition.
The best way to avoid chickenpox is to have your child immunised.
As part of the Australian National Immunisation Program (NIP), your child will get free immunisation against chickenpox at 18 months old (unless she has already had chickenpox) or in year 7 of secondary school (if she hasn't had a chickenpox immunisation or infection).
Chickenpox immunisation is also recommended for children 14 years and older, as well as for adults who haven't been immunised against chickenpox or who haven't yet had the disease. This isn't paid for under the NIP.
Immunisation for chickenpox is around 90% effective. This means that, rarely, some children still catch chickenpox even if they've been immunised. But the illness tends to be shorter and the skin blisters aren't as severe.
People with shingles should keep their rash covered to reduce the risk of passing the virus on to any children.