Chickenpox: when is it contagious and the best treatments?

Chickenpox is long-winded and painful. Check out the symptoms, causes, and treatments...

Woman holding baby covered in chickenpox
(Image credit: Getty / Future)

Chickenpox will no doubt become a milestone in your parenting life at some point before your child is 10 years old.

And there are many other childhood illnesses you might come across too, like hand foot and mouth disease (opens in new tab), impetigo (opens in new tab) and tonsillitis (opens in new tab). And, although uncomfortable, most cases of chickenpox aren't serious. There has been a recent spate of chickenpox. Many believe it's because lock down has lowered our immunity. 

One of the most important things to know about children who have chickenpox is that you don't give any aspirin or ibuprofen-based pain killers or medicines. Dr Anshumen Bhagat, creator of the doctor-on-demand app GPDQ, explains why: 'Children with chickenpox who take aspirin can develop a potentially fatal condition called Reye's syndrome, which causes severe brain and liver damage. Never give a child aspirin if it is suspected or known that they have chickenpox.'

What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a viral infection, that is spread quickly and easily between children - so it's a common illness for little ones to go through. The NHS tells us: 'Children usually catch chickenpox in winter and spring, particularly between March and May,' so it's worth being extra vigilant around these times.

As it's hugely contagious (around 90 per cent of people who've never had it will develop it if put in contact with the virus) it's very hard to prevent your child from contracting it.

When your child goes through it, there are some questions that every mum needs answers to - and fast. Here we explain symptoms, causes, treatments.

When are chickenpox contagious?

The NHS (opens in new tab) confirms that someone with chickenpox is most infectious from 1 to 2 days before the rash appears, until all the blisters have crusted over. This usually takes 5 to 6 days from the start of the rash. 

So if you're little one comes down with chickenpox, best to retrace your steps and let people know, especially pregnant people. 

What does chickenpox look like?

Image of skin covered in chickenpox blisters

Chickenpox often starts with a fever a few days before the spots appear. Your little one will then have red, itchy spots all over their body, which turn into fluid-filled blisters. These normally will form in clusters They will eventually scab over and fall off after a week or two. It's considered a mild condition, but for anyone who's ever suffered it will know, the spots can be really irritating and your child is likely to feel uncomfortable.

It is caused by a virus called varicella-zoster which travels in small droplets of saliva or mucus that are spread through coughing and sneezing. Most children will get chickenpox before the age of 10, with 90 per cent of people being immune to it by the time they reach adulthood.

Generally, the worst of the rash is gone in around five to seven days. This is once the spots have burst and turned into blisters.

Chickenpox symptoms

Before the first rash develops:

  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Feeling sick
  • A high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or over
  • Aching muscles
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite

Where the rash is likely to develop:

  • Behind the ears
  • On the face
  • Over the scalp
  • On the chest and belly
  • On the arms and legs

What should I do if my child gets chickenpox?

Tell their school or nursery immediately, if they're at that age, and wait until the last spots have burst and crusted over before they return. Newborn babies, pregnant women and people with a lowered immune system should not be exposed to the illness, so try to keep your child indoors and away from family and friends at risk.

The best chickenpox treatments

Most children get over it on their own. There are things you can get at the chemist like calamine lotion or PoxClin CoolMousse (Amazon, £11 (opens in new tab)), which will help calm the itching. 

PoxClin was a life saver when my three-year old got chickenpox. We'd been dabbing on calamine lotion which was taking forever and was sticky. This cooling mousse just smoothed on super easy. And as it didn't stain my son could 'help' me put it on too.

Stephanie Lowe, Family Editor, Goodto

And pain killers like paracetamol will help bring down their fever. Make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids and doesn't scratch the spots, because it could leave scarring.

It's also important that children who have chickenpox aren't given any aspirin or ibuprofen-based pain killers or medicines. Dr Anshumen Bhagat, creator of the doctor-on-demand app GPDQ, who has 15 years’ experience working for the NHS explains why: 'Children with chickenpox who take aspirin can develop a potentially fatal condition called Reye's syndrome, which causes severe brain and liver damage. NEVER give a child aspirin if it is suspected or known that they have chickenpox.'

Dr Anshumen goes on to confirm that ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatories should not be used, 'due to the small risk of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) causing adverse skin reactions during chickenpox' as they 'can cause the blisters to become more severe in some cases and can, in rare cases, lead to septicemia.'

Chickenpox treatments at a glance include;

  • Calamine lotion
  • Cooling gel
  • Paracetamol
  • Cool, light clothes
  • Plenty of fluids

Should I take my child to the doctor?

The NHS confirms that At what stage is chickenpox most contagious?

Someone with chickenpox is most infectious from 1 to 2 days before the rash appears, until all the blisters have crusted over. This usually takes 5 to 6 days from the start of the rash. virus is at its most contagious a few days before the spots appear, and is generally thought to not be contagious after the spots have scabbed over.

Can chickenpox be prevented?

There is an immunisation jab for chickenpox, but it is not offered to children in the UK unless they are particularly vulnerable to the disease.

This is because after the two recommended doses of the vaccine, it doesn't have a 100% success rate, so there is still a chance of your child contracting chickenpox after immunisation

Can adults catch chickenpox and can you get chickenpox twice?

Chickenpox in adults is rare, but you can still catch it if you haven't had it. It's quite unlikely if you've had it already as only 13 per cent of people contract the virus more than once.

Can I catch shingles from someone with chickenpox?

Shingles is an infection that causes a painful, red rash – normally on your chest or stomach, but it also can appear on your face, eyes or genitals. Other symptoms include just a general feeling of being unwell and a tingling or painful feeling in an area of skin.

You can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles (opens in new tab), but not the other way around.

What if I get chickenpox while I'm pregnant?

Chickenpox can be dangerous for people who are pregnant or have a weakened immune system. The virus can cause complications for the mother-to-be and her unborn baby, which may include pneumonia or in very rare cases inflammation of the brain or liver. If you're pregnant or have given birth in the last week and think you might have been exposed to chickenpox, see your GP and don't wait until spots have appeared to make an appointment. It is worth remembering though, that it is very rare for pregnant women to get chickenpox.

If you do get infected, pregnant women can take an antiviral medicine called acyclovir once the rash appears. It will not cure the infection, but it will make the symptoms less severe. It has to be taken five times a day for seven days.

You might like: 

Hand, foot and mouth disease (opens in new tab)

Tonsillitis in toddler and babies (opens in new tab)

Sore throat remedies (opens in new tab)

Coughs and colds in babies and when to see a Dr (opens in new tab)

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