Checklist on Chickenpox
Chickenpox is a common childhood illness and most children catch it at some point. But what symptoms should you look out for, when is it necessary to see the doctor, and what are the most effective forms of treatment?
- What is it?
Chickenpox is a viral infection caused by the varicella zoster virus. It's spread in droplets inhaled into the respiratory tract. Complications are rare, but serious, and can occur in previously healthy children.
- Who's affected?
Chickenpox tends to affect children under ten - most children have had the infection by this age. In older children and adults, chickenpox can be more severe.
Children who are immunosuppressed (for example, on steroids) are particularly vulnerable to complications, as are newborn babies who may catch the infection from their mother in late pregnancy.
- What are the symptoms?
The incubation period (from exposure to onset of symptoms) is 14 to 24 days. The initial symptoms are mild fever and headaches - younger children may seem generally grouchy.
These are followed within hours by the appearance of a typical rash. Crops of red spots appear, which quickly develop central fluid-filled blisters that are intensely itchy. After a couple of days these scab over and dry up.
In about one in ten cases symptoms are so minimal the infection goes unnoticed. The rash mostly affects the trunk, but may be anywhere on the body, including the scalp and in the mouth.
The most common complication is a secondary infection with bacteria, such as staphylococcus or streptococcus, which can lead to potentially fatal conditions, such as toxic shock syndrome or necrotising fasciitis. A persistently high fever or return of fever should raise suspicions.
Other complications include pneumonia, encephalitis (usually settles without lasting effects) and inflammation of the blood vessels (vasculitis).
- What's the treatment?
Talk to your doctor if you're unsure of the diagnosis or if your child seems particularly unwell, has a cough, headache, if the skin is particularly inflamed or infected, or there are other worrying symptoms.
For young babies or children with immunity problems, always seek medical advice. Give pain-relieving syrup and plenty of fluids. Calamine lotion and antihistamine medicines may relieve the itching.
Keep your child's hands clean, their fingernails short and try to encourage them not to scratch the spots, as they can scar. The spots may be infectious until they've fully scabbed over, but no child should need to be excluded from school for more than five days.