Everything you need to know about chickenpox in children

The causes, symptoms and treatment for this common childhood illness.

cute young boy, kid having chicken pox, that is cured with brilliant green antiseptic
olesiabilkeiGetty Images

Concerned your child may have contracted chickenpox? At some point most children catch this common childhood illness, characterised by red, itchy spots that turn into blisters.

While the rash can be extremely itchy and uncomfortable, chickenpox in children is considered to be a mild illness and will most likely get better within a week without needing to see a GP. Most cases are not serious, but your child will probably feel irritable and under the weather for a week or two.

If you are concerned, Dr Morrison, NHS GP and Medical Consultant for medexpress.co.uk offers his expert advice on chickenpox causes, symptoms and treatment options:

What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a common illness which usually affects children under the age of 10. Symptoms include an itchy rash and red spots. The spots then develop into fluid-filled blisters, before turning into scabs and eventually dropping off.

Other chickenpox symptoms include a high temperature, headache, nausea, aches and pains and a loss of appetite. Known medically as varicella, chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is highly contagious and spreads quickly.

Scratching blisters can lead to further infections, sleepless nights and permanent scarring, but there are several over-the-counter remedies to counter the itching outbreak.

How do you catch chickenpox?

It normally takes 14 days for symptoms to show after you have come into contact with the chickenpox virus. Children are more prone to chickenpox between the months of March and May.

The chickenpox virus is spread from one person to another through direct contact with broken chickenpox blisters and airborne droplets.

The chickenpox virus is spread from one person to another through direct contact with broken chickenpox blisters and airborne droplets, which can be transferred onto objects.

‘Chickenpox is very infectious,’ says Dr Morrison. ‘Just being in the same room as someone with chickenpox, for a few minutes, is enough for the virus to spread through the air, via breathing, sneezing or coughing, and infect anyone who isn’t already immune.’

How serious is chickenpox?

Typically a childhood illness, chickenpox is quite common and usually runs its course within 10–21 days. However, adults who have not been previously exposed to the virus can catch it and are often hit harder by the associated symptoms. It is possible to catch chickenpox more than once, but this is unusual.

‘Serious complications are rare in healthy children, but more likely if adults catch it,’ says Dr Morrison.

Adults who have not been previously exposed to the virus can catch it and are often hit harder by the associated symptoms.

‘Those most at risk include anyone who has a weak immune system, leukaemia, HIV, heart/lung disease, those on chemotherapy or steroids, pregnant women, or babies under a month old. Complications can include inflammation of the lungs (pneumonia), brain (encephalitis), kidneys (glomerulonephritis) and testicles (orchitis).’

Chickenpox complications

The risk of chickenpox complications are more serious for the following:

  • Newborn babies.
  • Pregnant women who have not had chickenpox.
  • People receiving cancer treatment.
  • People with a weak immune system, such as acute or chronic leukaemiaor HIV.
  • Patients taking medicine to suppress their immune system, such as long-term oral corticosteroids.

    How do you prevent chickenpox spreading?

    The most infectious chickenpox phase is one to two days before the rash appears, until all the blisters have formed scabs. To prevent spreading the infection, keep children off school until all their spots have scabbed over. This usually takes five to six days from the start of the rash. If your child develops chickenpox, keep them away from public areas and avoid contact with people who have not had the virus.

    How is chickenpox treated?

    The treatment for chickenpox mostly consists of easing the symptoms. ‘Sometimes the spots become infected with bacteria, and antibiotics are occasionally required,’ says Dr Morrison.

    ‘However, usually all that is needed is paracetamol and the application of calamine cream or lotion. It’s a good idea not to wrap the patient up too much, as the warmer the skin, the more spots will appear. It is best to stick to light cotton clothing, and ensure the home is a comfortable temperature.’

    When should I see a doctor?

    If you or your child has chickenpox do not visit a doctor, as this could risk infecting vulnerable members of the public. Anyone with chickenpox should stay at home while they are infectious and a family member should visit a pharmacy to purchase the relevant medicine.

    However, if your child is under four weeks old, experiences breathing difficulties or chest pains, become very drowsy, can't take on fluids, or the rash becomes infected, seek medical advice immediately.

    Follow our chickenpox treatment tips

    To ease the itching and prevent the spread of infection, try the following:

    ✔️ Remember that an infected person will be contagious until new blisters have stopped appearing and until all the blisters have scabs.

    ✔️ Avoid scratching the blisters because of the risk of infection. Cut the nails short or make the patient wear gloves.

    ✔️ Pay attention to personal hygiene.

    ✔️ If your child is in pain or has a fever you can give them paracetamol (eg Calpol). Follow the dosage instructions provided in the leaflet.

    ✔️ Do not give them ibuprofen.

    ✔️ Calamine lotion can help to relieve the itching.

    ✔️ Keep the patient cool because heat and sweat can make the itching worse.

    ✔️ In attacks of chickenpox where the itching is so serious that the child's sleep is disturbed, antihistamines such as piriton which has a sedative effect can be used.

    ✔️ In serious cases of chickenpox in people with a weak immune system visit your GP.

        What is shingles?

        Once a person has chickenpox, they will develop immunity to the virus for life. However, the virus may reactivate later in life as shingles, following contact with somebody with shingles or due to a weakened immune system such as age or severe illness.

        A person who has active shingles can infect others with chickenpox, but this is rare. They cannot give shingles to someone else.

        Should you take your child to a pox party?

        A social gathering where children are deliberately exposed to chickenpox (or other diseases) to promote immunity, if you’ve received an invitation to a ‘pox party’ should you attend?

        ‘Chickenpox parties used to be common, as it was felt that children were safer catching chickenpox during the first 10 years of life, rather than risk catching it as an adult, or even worse, during pregnancy,’ says Dr Morrison.

        ‘I can see the logic behind this. However, these are no longer recommended by NHS experts. For a start, children won’t necessarily catch chickenpox to order. In addition, you can’t guarantee that a child won’t have serious complications, as they are very unpredictable, even in healthy children.’

        ‘If there are compelling reasons why someone needs to be immune to chickenpox, such as non-immune immunosuppressed patients, there is a vaccine available,’ Adds Dr Morrison.

        Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
        More From Happy family