Chicken Pox

Chicken pox is a common childhood disease caused by the varicella virus. It causes small itchy blisters to form on the skin and also makes people feel a bit miserable in general. I still remember the dreadful itch of my chicken pox scabs and have the forehead scars to prove it. Most of the time chicken pox is a mild disease, but it actually does have some long forgotten nasty complications that while rare, are still a risk with every infection. It is common for there to be some scarring from the blisters, however serious complications such as skin infections, pneumonia, encephalitis (swelling of the brain), and even death can occur. It remains a dangerous virus to certain people in our community such as people who have a decreased immunity (people undergoing chemo, newborns and pregnant women, people taking immunosuppressive medicines or long-term oral steroids, and people with cancer, HIV or organ transplant patients).

It is fortunate that we are now able to vaccinate children against chicken pox. A vaccine is available on the National Immunisation Schedule for children at 15 months of age. The vaccine is recommended for teenagers and adults who are not immune to chicken pox and also for non-immune women before their pregnancy if they haven’t already had chicken pox or been vaccinated against it.

Chicken pox is easily spread through the air from infected people when they sneeze, cough or laugh. It can also be transmitted by touching the chicken pox blisters or objects that have been touched by an infected person. The virus has quite a long incubation period, with people showing symptoms about 10 to 21 days after being exposed. In children the illness lasts for around five to ten days, and a somewhat shorter time for adults (about three to seven days) but adults and teenagers tend to get sicker with the virus than kids do. If you have had chicken pox before you usually get immunity from it if exposed again. Some people who had a very mild case of chicken pox can sometimes get it again.

The early symptoms are pretty non-specific – tiredness, fever, headache, runny nose, cough and loss of appetite, with the recognisable rash developing after one to two days. The rash usually starts on the face and scalp and spreads over the next three to four days to the rest of the body. The spots that appear on the skin turn into fluid-filled blisters a few hours after appearing. This yellow fluid contains the chicken pox virus. The blisters dry up and the scabs fall off after a week or two. Spots can appear almost anywhere on the body such as inside the nose and mouth, on the genitals, eyelids and in the ears!

Treatment for chicken pox involves trying to soothe the itch and treating the discomfort of the early symptoms of infection. Lukewarm baths containing baking soda or oatmeal can be soothing for itchy skin. Ice packs and cool cloths can also be very soothing for itchy areas. Calamine cream can help and it is less drying than the old remedy of calamine lotion. Try and keep fingernails short and wash hands often so that you don’t infect the blisters if they are scratched.

Paracetamol is the best treatment for headache, fever, aches and pains. For children or teenagers with chicken pox do not give aspirin as this can increase the risk of Reyes Syndrome (a serious condition that causes swelling in the brain and liver. It can happen in children or teenagers who are recovering from a viral illness such as chicken pox or the flu). Ibuprofen must also be avoided in children with chicken pox as it has been associated with more skin infections. It is recommended that people with chicken pox stay home from work, school or early childhood centres for one week from the appearance of the rash or until all the blisters have dried up.

This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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