Childhood Illnesses: TNL’s Guide to Chickenpox
What is it?
Chickenpox is a viral infection that causes the whole body to develop a distinctive spotty rash and blisters. It is transmitted through the air and highly contagious, especially in the first few days and often before the spots even appear. It is produced by the varicella virus and is usually reasonably mild, but it can become life threatening in rare cases and is usually worse in adults. Chickenpox is most common in children and is normally only contracted once, after which an immunity is built up. It is, however, possible to contract it again at a later age, usually if the first infection was present before the age of 6 months.
There are three phases to the rash; red spots break out for several days, blisters form and pop, then scabs begin to cover the blisters so they begin healing. People suffering from chickenpox are advised not to scratch at the spots as it can result in scarring.
What are the Symptoms?
The symptoms for chickenpox are:
- Rash (spots and blisters)
- Stomach ache
- Sore throat
- Malaise (general discomfort)
- Loss of appetite
What is the Treatment?
The best treatment is prevention. As chickenpox is an airborne virus it spreads rapidly. It is essential that, as soon as a child is suspected to have contracted chickenpox, they are sent home immediately and remain away from their setting until all spots have scabbed over - approximately 5 days after they appear. Regularly disinfecting surfaces and items, including bedding, drinks bottles and toys handled by children, will also reduce transmission.
Getting a vaccine against chickenpox can also be an effective form of prevention; however, it is not routinely given. It is available for those who may develop serious side effects as a result of chickenpox, such as those who already have underlying health conditions.
Ibuprofen should never be given for chickenpox as it can cause severe side effects including swelling of the brain and liver, as well as infections of the skin.
A chickenpox diagnosis can usually be made by the display of symptoms. However, there are many other illnesses that can cause spots and rashes. If practitioners and families are unsure, advice from a doctor should be sought. If making an appointment at a doctor’s surgery, inform them that chickenpox is suspected.
If a child has contracted chickenpox, the best ways to treat them are to:
- Keep them at home - all following treatments should be done at home as they should not be in their setting.
- Monitor their temperature.
- Keep them hydrated, drinking plenty of water rather than juice.
- Keep nails short and cover hands with socks at night to prevent scratching and scarring.
- Use cooling creams and gels from a pharmacy.
- Give baths in cool water and pat skin dry, rather than rubbing.
- Give them paracetamol to bring down temperatures and ease discomfort, if needed. Labels should always be read to ensure age-appropriate dosage is given. Parent/guardian permission must be acquired before giving ANY medication to children. It is recommended that first aiders administer medications.
- Consult pharmacists or doctors for further advice and information on suitable treatments.
- Make an appointment with a GP if the symptoms do not improve or disappear after a suitable length of time. The suggested time frame is 1-2 weeks, but personal judgement should always be used. If symptoms worsen within this time frame, such as consistently high temperatures or laboured breathing, seek advice from a medical professional by calling 111 or 999 immediately.
Chickenpox affects everyone differently. Some people may only develop a handful of spots, while others can have over 500 blisters and spots. The average number of spots to have is approximately 300. Having so many itchy spots on a small body can be incredibly infuriating for children! Remember to remain empathic and patient with them throughout their chickenpox experience.
If someone develops chickenpox, there is a 90% chance that anyone else in their household who has never had it before will also contract it. Be prepared!
The itchy red spots are usually first seen on the face, chest and back before it spreads to other body parts.
Some people may be born immune to the virus, others can build a resistance after contracting it and some might get chickenpox more than once. There is a special antibody test that can be done to find out if someone has immunity to chickenpox or not.