What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox, sometimes called varicella, is very easy to catch and it mainly affects children.1 It often starts with a fever or headache and then an itchy red rash appears on the face and head before spreading and forming fluid-filled blisters.1,2

These usually take 7-10 days to completely dry up and on average 250-500 blisters will cover the entire body.3

Chickenpox is spread by breathing in droplets from an infected person or through contact with a weeping chickenpox blister.1

A child can be infected for 2-3 weeks before showing any symptoms.1

Chicken pox symptoms - chicken pox rash on back

Chickenpox is a serious illness.

  • Currently, 90% of children are likely to get chickenpox before they become teenagers.1
  • The children who go to hospital are often previously healthy.1
  • Chickenpox infections can cause a range of complications, often nasty bacterial infections, occasionally pneumonia or swelling of the brain.4,5
  • About 1 in 20 people will develop a bacterial skin infection that requires antibiotic treatment.6
  • Scarring from chickenpox occurs in about 20% of children and in around 40% of cases this occurs on the face.3
  • 1-2 cases per year will result in a long-term disability or death.1

Māori and Pacific Island children are 3 to 4 times more likely to end up in hospital than other children.3,5 Make sure your children and tamariki get vaccinated.

Chickenpox is a serious illness. Talk to you doctor.

Treating chickenpox

There is no cure for chickenpox once you have it, but there are things you can do to help alleviate the symptoms:7-10

  •  Bathe in a cool or lukewarm bath. Adding ½ cup of baking soda to the bathwater can help soothe itchy skin.
  • Apply a lotion such as calamine to ease the itching, or ask your doctor or pharmacist to recommend a product.
  • Take paracetamol to reduce the fever and headache; however, please note that aspirin should NOT be given to someone with chickenpox.1
  • Stay hydrated by drinking small amounts of liquid often. Children may not feel like eating much, but make sure you keep their fluid intake up.
  • Avoid scratching, and keep children’s fingernails short and clean to reduce any damage done by scratching.

 If you know someone who has chickenpox, remember that they will be contagious until all of the blisters have dried up. In the meantime, they need to stay at home to rest and avoid infecting others.1

 If you or your child has been exposed to someone with chickenpox, getting vaccinated up to 72 hours after exposure can help prevent chickenpox or at least make the illness milder if they do catch it.11

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Chickenpox and your family

Chickenpox can cause a lot of disruption to families.

A child who becomes infected with chickenpox can easily pass it on to other family members – sometimes before they even begin to show symptoms themselves.1 Family members who get chickenpox second are also likely to get it worse than the first person.4 Weeks of illness can therefore occur in a household – as one family member recovers, another becomes ill.1

 It can be stressful caring for a child (and then potentially their siblings) as they’re kept away from friends, daycare and school. For working parents, extra time away from work and unpaid leave can put further pressure on the family.

However, chickenpox can be prevented by immunisation.1 For more information about protecting your family, have a chat with your doctor or nurse about the chickenpox vaccine.

 A great time to discuss chickenpox vaccination is at your child’s 5 month immunisation visit or anytime from when your child turns 9 months old. This will ensure your child is protected as early as possible.

To hear a mother talk about her son’s chickenpox experience watch the video below.

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