CHICKEN pox is an illness often associated with childhood, and is caused by the varicella zoster virus.
It’s most common under the age of 10, but can be experienced by anybody who hasn’t had it previously, regardless of age.
It’s not to be mistaken for shingles, which is caused by the same virus but occurs because you once had chickenpox, and the virus stays dormant in your body, but gets retriggered.
With schools (hopefully!) starting back in the coming weeks, chickenpox and other common childhood illnesses can be expected to increase in prevalence due to increased close contact.
The main symptoms that present with chickenpox are well known, and include itchy red spots which emerge in crops, and can be anywhere on the body but most commonly on the face and trunk.
These are often accompanied by a high temperature for a few days, aches and pains, and generally feeling quite poorly. Appetite also tends to diminish.
Chickenpox is extremely infectious, and spreads through droplets. Coughing, sneezing, touching surfaces that droplets have landed on, or contact with the fluid from one of the blisters are all potential ways for it to spread. You are able to transmit it even before you know you have it, as two days before the spots appear it’s being shed from your system.
It takes 14 days from when you come in contact with it for you to show symptoms, and you remain infective until all the spots have crusted over, which takes about five days. Children need to be kept off school until this happens.
Treating chickenpox for the most part is just about making the person feel as comfortable as possible.
Fluids are really important to maintain hydration — ice lollies may be easier to take, especially if any of the lesions are in the mouth (which can and does happen — very uncomfortable!).
Paracetamol can be used for any pain, and it’s important to note that ibuprofen is not recommended.
The itch can be really unbearable, so try to prevent it by cutting nails very short and using mittens in smaller children going to bed (socks over the hands will work just fine).
A topical product can be applied to the skin to ease the itchy sensation. There are a variety of types and brands available, many more than the traditional calamine lotion. Make sure to choose one that is suitable for the age of your child, and use it as often as required within the licence of the product — preventing the itch/ scratch cycle will reduce discomfort but also lowers the risk of scarring.
In general chickenpox is a viral illness that runs its course, but it can occasionally cause serious complications such as skin infections, encephalitis (swelling of the brain), stroke or sepsis. While most cases don’t need to be seen by a GP, it is advisable to be seen if there are any lesions in the eye, if the spots begin to look infected (hot and weeping), or if there are any other concerning symptoms such as pain in the chest or difficulty breathing.
The chickenpox vaccine is not part of the national vaccine schedule in Ireland, but it can be obtained privately from most GPs, and many parents make the decision for their children to get it, to avoid the illness described above, and the risk of complications.
Vaccines reduce the number of cases and the severity of the disease that does breakthrough, as well offering the benefits of herd immunity for those too young or unable to be vaccinated.
The vaccine consists of two doses, at least one month apart after the age of one year.
Because it’s a live vaccine, its not suitable if previous allergy to the ingredients has been experienced, if pregnant, or planning to conceive. A small percentage (1-3%) of recipients may develop a rash that could spread the virus. It’s worth making a call to enquire if avoiding the heartache of chickenpox is something you’re considering!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a pharmacist, researcher and founder of InTuition, a health and wellness education company.
Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally.