Chickenpox

Baby with chickenpox and mum

You may well remember having had chicken pox as a child. Who could forget those itchy red spots that you really wanted to scratch but weren't allowed, and the dire warnings from grown-ups about how scratching would leave you permanently scarred? Now it’s your turn to do chicken pox quarantine with your own itchy child. Get the calamine and DVD box sets on standby – here’s everything you need to know about chickenpox.

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

What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is so common that almost all children suffer from it at some point. It’s highly contagious and is passed on through the respiratory system. Like flu, it’s contained in the tiny droplets that are put into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Breathing in the air, or touching objects on which these tiny droplets have landed, can lead to your child catching chickenpox. It really is very contagious but the good news is that, once you’ve had it, you’re usually immune to chickenpox for life.

It's easily recognisable, as the red, spotty rash is distinctive and often covers its victims from head to toe, as well as in places you can’t see – such as inside the mouth or genitals (eek). It usually involves flu-like symptoms too. Adults can also get chickenpox, 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 to chickenpox and come from the same virus, so children can develop chickenpox from coming into contact with an adult who’s suffering from shingles.

On the whole, chickenpox is 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 either of these applies to you.

Why is it called chickenpox?

It has nothing to do with chickens, as they don’t even get infected by varicella zoster (the virus that chickenpox comes from). Some people claim that chickenpox got its name due to chicken’s association with wimpy weakness (remember those tiresome “pock pock” sounds kids used to make to imply you were scared?). However, that’s a little harsh on the people who get chickenpox and, by the same logic, you could associate many other common illnesses with chickens. We can only conclude that nobody really knows how chickenpox 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 having chickenpox. Before the rash breaks out, it’s likely that he will feel unwell for a few days. If you know that other children in your area have been suffering from chickenpox then keep an eye out for the following symptoms:

  • Red, spotty rash. It usually starts on the face before spreading to the chest and tummy, then everywhere else. Some children get only a few 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 mum 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 he’s getting better.
  • High temperature. This might come a day or two before the rash.
  • Sickness. Your child might feel sick after catching chickenpox, which can cause a loss of appetite.
  • Aches and pains. He might feel a bit sore and run down at the onset of chickenpox.
  • Tiredness. Chickenpox can make your child feel worn out and irritable.

How is chickenpox treated?

Most cases of chickenpox 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 old then you can give this to ease his aches and lower his temperature. Check the dosage information on the packet. Do not give him ibuprofen, as children with chickenpox can react very badly to anti-inflammatory medicine.
  • Calamine lotion. Smearing this, or cooling gels or creams, on the blisters can ease the soreness and make him less tempted to scratch them.
  • 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 he really can’t resist touching them then encourage him to pat them, to relieve some of the itch, instead of scratching.
  • Oatmeal bath. Many Mumsnetters say this technique has soothed the itch of chickenpox. 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 he finds it soothing. Some Mumsnetters say their baby likes to be gently rubbed with the wet oat parcel.
  • Keep his nails short. This reduces the risks of scratching. You can’t watch him 24/7 so, if you see signs that he’s been scratching in the night, try putting socks over his hands.
  • Keep him hydrated. Give him plenty to drink and treat him to sugar-free ice-lollies as these will also soothe soreness in the mouth and throat. Avoid salty foods.
  • Dress him in light cotton clothing. These will him cool and comfortable. They won’t press on his blisters or increase itchiness.
  • Talk to other Mumsnetters. Excellent advice, information and support is available from parents who have been through chickenpox with their children.
Mum applying cream to baby with chickenpox

How can I stop my child passing on chickenpox?

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

  • Keep him at home. Doctors recommend that you keep him off school or nursery. But keep him away from public areas, too, as chickenpox 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 him out of quarantine, as his illness will be less infectious by then.
  • Contact his school or nursery. Do this straight away and tell them when you noticed his first symptoms.
  • Wash his bedding and clothing. You’re not only trying to stop him 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 he might have touched and just generally keep him out of circulation (although don’t make him 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 with chickenpox?

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

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

  • If your baby is younger than four weeks old and is exhibiting symptoms of chickenpox.
  • 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 chickenpox. Seek advice from your doctor or midwife immediately. Chickenpox during pregnancy can cause complications for you and your baby, although the risk is low.

What are chickenpox complications?

If your child has chickenpox and shows any of the following symptoms you should seek medical help immediately:

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

What Mumsnetters say about chickenpox

“Try putting aqueous calamine cream on the blisters. It’s brilliant stuff and stays put. My five-year-old daughter had chickenpox a few months ago. She didn't honestly care after the first few days and enjoyed getting her own way with the TV remote because her brothers felt sorry for her! Keep posting on Mumsnet Talk, as there’s some fab support available.”

“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 are just spotty and not in too much discomfort.”

“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. Seemed to work!”

“I stayed in for a week and a half, when my daughter had chickenpox, and had shopping delivered. I know it is horrible, and really difficult when your other children are well, but it's not just kids that can get chickenpox (my husband had it the week after my daughter and he was very ill).”

“For my three children, chickenpox was very mild. They had it at nearly the same time. My eldest son had about 50 spots but was not ill for a moment. My younger son and daughter were literally covered in spots over their whole bodies but, apart from that, they didn’t really have any other symptoms.”

“When my son had chickenpox, 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.”