What is chickenpox
Chickenpox (varicella) is an infectious disease characterized by a skin rash and mild fever. It occurs almost universally in children when below the age of 10 years. It is highly contagious and epidemics usually occur in children who play or go to school together, most often in winter and early spring.
The time from exposure to the virus to the onset of symptoms (incubation period) is usually 2-3 weeks.
After a day or two of vague discomfort, feeling feverish, loss of appetite, and possibly a headache, a rash of small pink spots appears on the chest and begins to spread to the face and the rest of the body. Rarely, it spreads to the hands and soles.
These spots turn into pimples, and then into itchy blisters containing a clear fluid. The blisters dry into scabs which soon flake off, usually leaving only a temporary scar.
Once all blisters have crusted into scabs, the disease is no longer infectious.
Symptoms usually last from a few days to two weeks. Most commonly, all blisters crust over within 7-10 days.
What causes chickenpox?
The virus that causes chickenpox, varicella zoster, is transmitted by direct contact with airborne droplets from the nose or mouth. It appears to be most contagious two days
before, and for a week after, the spots first appear.
The same virus causes shingles, so an adult infected with shingles can pass chickenpox on to a child, due to direct contact with fluid inside the skin blisters.
- Pimples that become itchy blisters and then scabs.
- Mild headache.
- General discomfort.
- Occasionally a sore throat.
- Dry cough.
How is chickenpox diagnosed and treated?
Observation of the characteristic rash and blisters is usually sufficient to diagnose chickenpox. Because the disease tends to be mild in children, most of them require no special medical treatment other than bed rest, plenty of fluids and paracetamol to relieve any fever. (Never give aspirin to a child under 12 years.)
The child should not return to school or come into contact with other children until the rash has disappeared. However, it is far better to catch chickenpox as a child and develop a lifelong immnity than to catch the disease as an adult, when it can be dangerous.
For this reason, it is good for all the children in the family to get the disease over with.
What can I do myself?
The main problem caused by chickenpox is itching, which can be very distressing to young children. If the child scratches the blisters, permanent scarring may occur. Also, there is the risk of skin infection resulting from scratching.
To ease the itching, apply compresses dipped in a solution of bicarbonate of soda diluted in cool water. Calamine lotion also has a very soothing effect.
If the child is still in nappies, change these frequently to prevent blisters on this part of the body from remaining damp and becoming infected.
When should I call the doctor?
You should call your doctor if a high fever occurs, if the blisters develop a yellowish discharge signalling infection, if the rash causes pain or uncontrollable itching, or if any unusual symptom develop, such as vomiting, coughing or drowsiness. Notify the doctor immediately if the child has any longstanding or serious illness, especially any involving the immune system.
It is better to call the doctor out to you, rather than take the infectious child into a surgery where the virus may be passed to other people.
What will the doctor do?
Antihistamines may be prescribed to ease the itching. Antibiotics may be necessary to treat bacterial infection of the skin caused by scratching.
Is chickenpox dangerous?
Chickenpox is not usually dangerous, but it can be so for certain groups of people. For example, it can be severe, or even fatal, to those who have leukaemia or another disease that adversely affects the immune system, or to those receiving steroid medication for other illnesses.
Chickenpox is a much more serious illness in adults, when an attack may lead to pneumonia. Very rarely, chickenpox may cause inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), which can result in seizures, coma, and even permanent brain damage.
Chickenpox is also dangerous for women in late pregnancy as this can cause the baby to be born with a severe attack of the illness. Such women should try to avoid contact with infected children.
- Make an Infusion of elder-flowers and apply it as a lotion to soothe the rash.
- Aloe vera gel can also relieve itching.
How can I protect my child from chickenpox?
Because chickenpox is so highly contagious, protection is almost impossible.
If your child has any immune deficiency or other debilitating disease and an epidemic of chickenpox occurs in your locality, discuss preventive treatment with your doctor, who may prescribe a suitable injection.
Such treatment may also be recommended for newborn babies whose mothers developed chickenpox shortly before or after delivery.
Do not give a child Ibuprofen with chickenpox and you should never be given aspirin. The use of aspirin in the presence of this or other viruses has been associated with a potentially fatal complication known as Reye's syndrome.