Expert / 20 April, 2017 / Dr Ellie Cannon

Dr Ellie Cannon on The Dreaded Chicken Pox

It’s definitely doing the rounds again – three of my friends have children at home literally covered in itchy, sore spots. We turned to our resident expert Dr Ellie Cannon for the low-down on the virus. 

Chicken pox is a really common and totally normal infection for your child to have: it always seems to be going around in schools and nurseries, although is usually more common in the spring months.

You know that it’s chicken pox usually by the very typical rash. Unlike other virus rashes that our children get, the spots appear in clusters – called crops- and you get new crops over several days. The spots start red, then they blister with fluid, then they go crusty and scab up. A doctor usually diagnoses chicken pox when they can see all these different stages of spots on the skin: some new red ones, some older fluidy ones and some even older crusty ones. This is typical, along with a mild fever and your little one being a little bit run down. The rash is also very itchy.

Kids catch chicken pox from someone else and it normally develops within 2-3 weeks of contact. You are contagious from 1-2 days before the rash starts until the rash has crusted over completely – usually a week after the first spot develops. It is very infectious and is spread in the air, just by being in the same room as someone who is contagious: so it doesn’t need to be their best friend who gives it to them, it may just be someone in the playground or their nursery room.

Chicken pox is a mild illness in most children. It is dangerous for children who have a weakened immune system or have other serious diseases. In otherwise healthy children, it is not normally dangerous – the possible complications include scarring of the skin and secondary infections of the skin or ears for which antibiotics are needed. Dangerous complications are very rare and these include pneumonia, encephalitis and kidney problems.

Controlling the itch is key to treatment either with calamine lotion or giving anti-itch medication – anti histamines. Running a bath through porridge oats (you can put the oats in a sock or a muslin), so the water goes milky, provides very good itch relief. Bicarbonate soda is also good for healing the spots and relieving the itching this can be used in the bath in the same way as the oats – add half to one cup to a bath to provide a soothing, anti itch bath treatment. As with any other virus, control the temperature with paracetamol, give plenty of fluids and allow your child to rest. Remember to let school or nursery know, and warn people he has seen in the day or two before the spots came out: they will be susceptible too, so it’s nice to warn the other parents!

There is new guidance not to give ibuprofen if your child has chicken pox: this is due to a very rare skin complication which has been seen in children with chicken pox who have taken ibuprofen. It is not known whether the ibuprofen has actually caused the problem, but because of the possible association we now advise parents to stick to paracetamol instead for fever control.

In pregnancy if you’ve had chicken pox then you are immune and it is no problem but if you have not had chicken pox you are not immune so you must consult your midwife straight away if you have symptoms as it may be harmful to you and your pregnancy.

Contrary to common belief you cannot catch shingles from a child with chickenpox. You can’t catch shingles. Shingles is a reactivation of your own old chicken pox many years later when your immune system is weaker. The chicken pox virus lies dormant in a nerve and then at some point starts to multiply again along the nerve causing a band of pain and a rash.  If you are an adult and you catch chicken pox from your child because you’ve never had it, you will get actual chicken pox just like children do with the same rash, although it is usually a lot worse and terribly distressing.

There is a vaccine for chicken pox but it is not routinely available on the NHS.  It is part of the immunisation schedule in other countries such as the USA and Canada but not in the UK at the moment.  It is available in many private clinics. Current wisdom suggests that given chicken pox is a mild illness for most children, implementing a large-scale vaccination programme is not worth it.

Article written by Dr Ellie Cannon. 

For more advice and guidance on becoming a Mum from Dr Ellie, see her book ‘Keep Calm: The New Mum’s Manual’



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