You may remember chickenpox from your childhood. Thankfully, there’s an immunisation to protect our own kids against chickenpox – but some still catch this illness.
So what is chickenpox anyway? Is it serious? And what can you do if you think your child has it?
Keep on reading for everything you need to know.
What is chickenpox?
Despite its name, chickenpox has nothing to do with chickens. Chickenpox’s proper name is varicella zoster virus. It’s an infection that causes an itchy, red rash that turns into small, fluid-filled blisters. Chickenpox can make your child feel unwell for about five to seven days. In some rare cases chickenpox in children can have serious complications.
What are the symptoms of chickenpox in children?
Chickenpox starts as an itchy, red rash. The rash turns into small blisters, sometimes just a few and sometimes covering the whole body including in the mouth. The blisters eventually crust over into scabs that drop off.
Chickenpox can make your child feel pretty miserable. For the first few days your child may have a fever, and the rash and blisters can also be very itchy. Other symptoms include headaches, tiredness, irritability and loss of appetite.
How do children catch chickenpox?
Chickenpox is very contagious for children who haven’t been vaccinated against it. Chickenpox is easily spread, by direct contact with someone who has chickenpox or from droplets in the air if they cough or sneeze.
If your child has chickenpox, they are contagious from one to two days before the rash appears until the blisters have dried up. So your child shouldn’t go to child care, kindy or school until the blisters have all dried. You should also notify these places as chickenpox can have serious implications for pregnant women, babies under three months old and people with weakened immune systems.
Is chickenpox serious?
Chickenpox in children is usually a mild illness and most kids make a full recovery within a few days.
In very rare cases, chickenpox can have serious complications. In one in 5000 people, chickenpox can cause a brain inflammation called encephalitis, and three in 100,000 will die. Chickenpox can also cause bacterial skin infections, dehydration and other serious illnesses. The virus stays in the body and can cause shingles when your child becomes an adult.
Chickenpox can also have serious implications for pregnant women, babies under three months old or people with a weakened immune system (for example those having chemotherapy). See a doctor right away if exposed to chickenpox.
Can your child still catch chickenpox even if immunised?
In Australia, children receive a free chickenpox vaccination as part of their normal vaccinations. This greatly reduces the chance that your child will catch chickenpox. Unfortunately, sometimes children still catch chickenpox even if after immunisation. The good news is that they will get a milder form of chickenpox, with a lower fever, less severe rash and will get better more quickly.
How do you treat chickenpox?
Most children who catch chickenpox can be cared for at home. Chickenpox can’t be treated with antibiotics because it is a virus.
You can help your child feel more comfortable by:
- treating the fever with paracetamol or ibuprofen – here’s some great info on choosing a good baby thermometer
- keeping your child hydrated
- not scratching the blisters as they can become infected and leave permanent pockmarks on your child’s skin – if your older child is tempted, you could try this new pimple popping toy to distract them instead!
- helping your child with the itching by using lotions, oatmeal baths and cooling gels
- wearing mittens can help stop young children scratching.
Does your child need to see a doctor about chickenpox?
You can usually treat chickenpox at home, but you may need to take your child to the doctor if:
- they become very unwell or very drowsy
- a high fever develops
- they are not drinking
- there are large, sore red areas around the rash because this might be a secondary bacterial infection
- they have eczema or a skin condition to find out what creams are best to use on the chickenpox
- there is an underlying medical condition
- they have a rash that does not turn to skin colour when you press on it because this could be a sign of another illness called meningococcal infection
- you are concerned for any reason.
Remember, chickenpox in children is usually a mild illness that passes in a few days. And make sure to take care of yourself when caring for your little one – here’s some great advice on coping when the kids are sick.