Chickenpox in babies and children

Baby with chickenpox and mum

You may remember having chickenpox as a child – who could forget those red spots you weren't allowed to scratch? And now you've got your own itchy child to contend with. Here's everything you need to know.

What is chickenpox?
What are the symptoms?
How can it be treated?
How can I stop my child passing it on?
Should I take my child to the doctor?
What Mumsnetters say

What is chickenpox?

It's so common that almost all children get it at some point. It's also easily recognisable. Chickenpox symptoms most commonly include the red, spotty rash which often covers its victims all the way from the arms and the legs to the entire body, including places you can’t see – such as inside the mouth or genitals (eek). It usually involves flu-like symptoms, too.

Adults can also get it if they didn’t have it as children, but this is fairly rare and most of us get it out of the way in childhood. Shingles are a close relation and come from the same virus, so children can develop it from coming into contact with an adult who’s suffering from shingles.

On the whole, it's harmless – with most cases clearing up within a week or two – but it can cause problems for babies and pregnant women. Talk to your doctor if this applies to you.

How do you get chickenpox?

It's highly contagious and passed on through the respiratory system. Like flu, it’s contained in the tiny droplets that go into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Breathing in the air, or touching objects on which these droplets have landed, can lead to your child catching it – it really is very contagious.

But can you get chickenpox twice? Thankfully, it's very unlikely.

chicken pox spots

Why is it called chickenpox?

It has nothing to do with chickens, as they don’t even get infected by varicella zoster (the virus it comes from). Some people claim that it got its name from the chicken’s association with cowardly weakness. However, that seems a little harsh and, by the same logic, could apply to lots of other common illnesses. We can only conclude that nobody really knows how it got its name.

I thought my four-year-old was coming down with a cold, as he sounded a bit bunged up, but then I noticed a few spots which looked like bites on him. The next morning, he had a few more spots and by that evening he was covered in over 200 of them.

What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

Between one and three weeks after coming into contact with varicella zoster, your child will start showing signs of chickenpox. Before the rash breaks out, it’s likely that she'll feel unwell for a few days. If you know that other children in your area have been suffering from it, keep an eye out for the following chickenpox symptoms:

  • Red, spotty rash. It usually starts on the face before spreading to the chest and tummy, then everywhere else. Some children only get a few chickenpox spots here and there, but others get between 200 and 500. They’re often sorest on the scalp, genitals and inside the mouth.
  • Blisters. After about a day, these develop on top of the spots. They’re very itchy, but try to prevent your child from scratching them, as this risks infection and could cause scarring (your mother really wasn't making it up). After another day or two, the fluid in the blisters will dry out and scab over. When they start to fall off naturally – usually after one to two weeks – the worst is over and your child will be getting better.
  • High temperature. This might come a day or two before the rash.
My youngest had just one spot to begin with. 3 days later and they were covered from head to toe. I've never seen so many spots.
  • Sickness. Your child might feel sick, which can cause a loss of appetite.
  • Aches and pains. She might feel a bit sore and run down.
  • Tiredness. It can make your child feel worn out and irritable.

Chickenpox treatment

Most cases clear up within a week or so and don’t require medical attention. But there are steps you can take to make your child more comfortable while they’re ill:

  • Infant paracetamol. If your baby is over two months then you can give this to ease her aches and lower her temperature. Check the dosage information on the packet. Do not give her ibuprofen, as children with chickenpox can react very badly to anti-inflammatory medicine.
  • PoxClin Cool Mousse This easy to apply mousse not only prevents itching and scarring, but also stops the spread of bacteria.
  • Calamine lotion. Smearing this on the blisters can ease the soreness and make her less tempted to scratch them.
PoxClin was brilliant at relieving the itch-scratch cycle and we were left with no scarring from pox marks even though some were fairly extensive.
  • Antihistamine. Products containing chlorphenamine, such as Piriton, can be given orally to help reduce the itching. This is particularly useful at night when they may scratch in their sleep. Piriton isn't licensed for babies under a year, and it's a good idea to check the packet and speak to your pharmacist before giving it to older children too.
  • Pat the spots. If she really can’t resist touching them then encourage her to pat them to relieve some of the itch, instead of scratching.
  • Oatmeal bath. Many Mumsnetters say this technique has soothed the itchiness. Run a cool bath, make a parcel of porridge oats in a piece of muslin, drop it into the bath and watch the water go milky. Then let your child bathe in it and see if she finds it soothing. Some Mumsnetters say their baby likes to be gently rubbed with the wet oat parcel.
When my daughter was really suffering and itching, I ran her a cool bath and put some porridge oats into the foot of some tights and squeezed it into the bath water. It makes the water go all milky and is very soothing to the skin.
  • Keep her nails short. This reduces the risks of scratching. You can’t watch her 24/7 so if you see signs that she’s been scratching in the night, try putting socks over her hands.
  • Keep her hydrated. Give her plenty to drink and treat her to sugar-free ice lollies as these will also soothe soreness in the mouth and throat. Avoid salty foods.
  • Dress her in light cotton clothing. This will keep her cool and comfortable and won’t press on her blisters or increase itchiness.
  • Talk to other Mumsnetters. Excellent advice, information and support is available from parents who have been through the same thing.
poxclin cool mousse

How can I stop my child from passing it on?

Ninety per cent of cases involve children who have picked it up by coming into contact with somebody who already has it. That shows just how difficult it is to stop it from spreading. However, there are some steps you can take to try to prevent your child from passing it on to other children:

  • Keep her at home. Doctors recommend that you keep your child off school or nursery. But keep her away from public areas, too, as it can be very bad news for pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems. Once the blisters have scabbed over you can think about bringing her out of the quarantined contagious period, as her illness will be less infectious by then.
  • Contact her school or nursery. Do this straight away and tell them when you noticed her first symptoms.
  • Wash her bedding and clothing. You’re not only trying to stop her passing it on to people outside your family – there’s also the rest of your household to consider, including your other children (if they haven’t had it). Sterilise any surfaces that she might have touched and just generally keep her out of circulation (without making her feel like an alien).
A paediatrician told me not to bath my son for the first couple of days, as the quicker that the spots dry, the less likely they will get infected. Just keep nails short, hands clean, and apply calamine to spots. This advice worked a treat.

Should I take my child to the doctor?

In the vast majority of cases the answer to this question is: “No.” Your doctor can’t cure it, and taking her to the surgery only risks passing on the illness to other people, so it’s best to just keep her at home, make her comfortable and wait for it to pass.

However, there are exceptional instances relating to the illness when medical help is required. These include:

  • If your baby is younger than four weeks old and is exhibiting symptoms.
  • If symptoms are still getting worse after six days.
  • If you develop symptoms as an adult.
  • If you’re pregnant and you think you might have it. Seek advice from your doctor or midwife immediately. During pregnancy it holds a risk of complications for you and your baby, although the risk is low.

What are the complications?

If your child shows any of the following symptoms, seek medical advice and help immediately:

  • Skin infection. The skin looks swollen, painful and, instead of the blisters drying out and crusting over, they keep reddening.

The chickenpox vaccine

If there's a risk of harming someone with a weakened immune system, you can get the vaccine on the NHS.

What Mumsnetters say

Mum applying cream to baby with chickenpox

Try putting aqueous calamine cream on the blisters. It’s brilliant stuff and stays put.

The spots come in waves several days apart. Calpol for the fever is good and Piriton for the itching. The first few days are the worst until the fever goes down, then they're just spotty and not in too much discomfort.

It seems to vary a lot. Mine had it at six years old, had maybe half a dozen spots (only one of which itched) and wasn't even remotely unwell.

I stayed in for a week and a half when my daughter had it, and had shopping delivered. I know it's horrible, but it's not just kids that can get it – my husband had it the week after and was very ill.

When my son had it, the best remedy was porridge oats tied up in a muslin and put in a cool bath. He loved then being gently rubbed with the oat/muslin 'parcel'. Calamine was a faff to put on but Piriton was administered to good effect.