Chicken pox is a mild, common childhood illness invariably accompanied by the expression: ‘don’t scratch!’
Its medical name is varicella zoster virus and while it is not usually serious it is highly contagious. It is characterised by a rash of itchy red spots that eventually turn into fluid-filled blisters which crust into scabs and drop off. Some people get a few spots whereas others get covered. Spots usually appear on the face, ears, scalp, under the arms, chest, stomach and limbs. Sometimes they get into trickier places such as the eyelids, mouth and genitals.
- Itchy rash all over the body
- Spots turn into fluid-filled blisters
- Blisters crust over into scabs
- Scabs drop off
What causes chicken pox?
By the time the rash appears a person has been incubating the varicella virus for between 10 and 21 days. This is why chicken pox is so contagious - people spread it before they even know they have it, unwittingly exhaling virus particles into the air. It can also be caught via skin to skin contact. Only once all the blisters have crusted over (usually five to six days after the rash started) is the patient no longer infectious.
Chicken pox is usually accompanied by a fever that lasts for two or three days - this occur when the virus enters your bloodstream and your immune system kicks in to start fighting it. The itching sensation that comes with the rash is also a good sign as it means your body is working hard to beat the virus.
How is chicken pox treated?
Patients should be quarantined until the last of their blisters has crusted over (a sign they are no longer contagious). In particular, contact should be avoided with: pregnant women, babies and those with a weak immune system such as people undergoing chemotherapy or with HIV.
A high fever can be treated with a painkiller such as paracetamol or ibuprofen (or a childhood dose of this). Plenty of water should be given to avoid dehydration. Kids’ fingernails should be kept short to prevent scratching to reduce the risk of scarring and loose-fitted cotton clothes should be worn to lessen skin irritation. Calamine lotion can be applied to the skin to relieve itchiness and to cool the skin.
If the fever is very high or your child seems unusually ill then do consult a doctor, although usually chicken pox clears by itself.
Alternative Remedies & Self-help
To prevent the virus spreading toys should be cleaned with a sterilising solution and clothes and bedding washed regularly.
You can also pay for a Chicken Pox Vaccine. It is not currently part of the routine childhood immunisation schedule in the UK but you can contact your GP who will be able to advise how to pay for the vaccine.