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What is it? What are the symptoms? What are the treatments?

What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a common viral illness characterised by an extremely itchy rash of fluid filled blisters. Most children catch it when in pre school or primary school, although adults can catch it too. It is caused by a very contagious airborne virus called varicella-zoster. It's most infectious from a couple days before the rash appears until the last blister has crusted over about a week later. Your child is very likely to develop symptoms if he's been in contact with another child with the illness.

A lot of mums would prefer their child to catch chicken pox before they start school to get it over and done with. Although in most cases it is a mild illness, it can in some cases cause complications if it spreads into the mucous membranes and not just the surface of the skin. 

Traditionally mums held "chicken pox parties" where children who had not had the illness would be sent to play with a child who had it. However you might be leaving vulnerable adults who have not had the infection – open to infection. 

Affected children should be kept away from pregnant women, newborns and anyone with a weakened immune system (so that means people with diabetes, cancer and the elderly, amongst others). But how will you know whether another mum at the party might be pregnant? They might not even know it themselves, and contracting chickenpox in pregnancy can cause serious complications. And what if a vulnerable adult comes to pick up one of your child's friends? So all in all, it's best to quarantine your child until the scabs have formed – and let their school, nursery or any other group they've been mixing with know they've got chickenpox.

What are the symptoms of Chickenpox?

Chickenpox symptoms include a rash of red, itchy spots that turn into fluid-filled blisters that eventually crust over. The scabs drop off if they haven't been picked off by the child scratching himself – something you do need to discourage as it can result in scarring. Your child might be covered in spots or have no more than a few isolated ones, which can make a diagnosis more tricky. You might see them on his face, behind his ears, on his scalp, arms, chest and tummy, or on his limbs. He might seem perfectly fine or he might be a bit under the weather. Some children seem generally unwell with loss of appetite and most have a fever for a few days.

What are the treatments and remedies of Chickenpox?

Over-the-counter remedies can help alleviate the itching, which can be incredibly acute, so ask your pharmacist. Tepid baths might bring some temporary relief, too. If your child has a fever you can give the appropriate dose of paracetamol or other children's medicine, though again, it's best to ask your pharmacist for advice.]

Rarely, chickenpox can cause serious illness in children. Seek medical advice if your child's blisters become infected or if he develops a pain in his chest or difficulty breathing, or any other symptoms that you are worries about.

There is a vaccine against chickenpox but it's only available to children and adults with a known vulnerability to chickenpox complications.

This guide 

The information in this Bounty A-Z of Family Health is not a substitute for an examination, diagnosis or treatment by a doctor, midwife, health visitor or any other qualified health professional. If in doubt, always speak to a doctor.

Bounty will not be held responsible or liable for any injury, loss, damage, or illness, however this occurs or appears, after using the information given on this website and in particular the A-Z of Family Health.

Further help

For health advice and information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the NHS offers call and web services. You can also visit NHS websites for services, health information and health news at nhs.uk 

  • England – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs.uk 
  • Scotland – call 111 from any landline or mobile phone free of charge, or visit nhs24.com 
  • Wales – call 0845 4647 , or visit nhsdirect.wales.nhs.uk 
  • Northern Ireland – visit hscni.net