This is one of several childhood skin diseases that along with measles and mumps are seen as part of growing up. Most of us have experienced one or all of these common skin conditions which are unpleasant at the time but don’t leave any after effects.
Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus and is a highly contagious disease which usually affects children under the age of 10. It is particularly prevalent in primary school children.
Can you catch chickenpox more than once?
Around 90% of adults have experienced chickenpox in childhood and consequently, have become immune to this condition. In other words, they are unlikely to get it again although there are a few, rare exceptions to that rule.
The reason for this is that you develop antibodies the first time you catch chickenpox which gives you lifelong immunity to this disease. But there are a few people who for whatever reason do not acquire these antibodies and become re-infected. These people develop chickenpox in adulthood which tends to be much worse than as a child.
But the default state is once you have had chickenpox you are protected against re-infection. So are unlikely to catch it again.
Causes of chickenpox
Chickenpox is caused by a virus which spreads in the same way as those responsible for colds, flu and other infectious diseases. It is contained within droplets of mucus and saliva which are released into the air via coughing or sneezing. These droplets also fall onto objects and surfaces which, when touched, enable the virus to be easily transferred to another person.
You only need to be in the same space with an infected person for a short period of time for this virus to spread to you.
There is an incubation period of 7 to 21 days before the symptoms of chickenpox make themselves known.
Chickenpox can be caught off someone with shingles but not vice versa.
Symptoms of chickenpox
You will develop flu-like symptoms before the rash appears. If you’ve previously suffered from flu then you will be very familiar with the fever, aches and pains and headaches.
These are then followed by the rash which spreads over the entire body. It starts as a series of small red spots which then develop a blister on top. This blister causes intense itching.
The spots appear on the face and body, underneath the arms, inside the mouth and ears and on the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands.
The blistered spots dry out and a crust forms on top which falls off after a couple of weeks.
But new clusters of spots appear after only a few days following the appearance of the rash. So expect to have spots which are either blistering or crusting over.
The symptoms are worse in adults than children which is why it is better to catch this disease at a young age. Plus this also results in lifelong immunity as well.
Chickenpox is characterised by a rash which breaks out over the entire body, forms blisters and then dries out, resulting in scabs which eventually fall off.
This is something you can diagnose for yourself.
But the chickenpox rash is similar to scabies and a few other skin conditions so you may want to visit your GP to rule any of these out. Your GP will carry out a simple blood test to determine the exact cause of your rash.
This blood test will also be able to tell if you have developed immunity to chickenpox. This immunity is determined by the presence of antibodies in the blood sample which will confirm this. But if you don’t have these then you will be carefully monitored to see if you develop chickenpox which is then followed by a course of treatment.
See your GP if you have a poorly functioning immune system, are pregnant or have a newborn baby. It is important that you do this as there is a risk of complications in these cases.
Treatment for chickenpox
There isn’t a cure for chickenpox but there are ways you can ease the symptoms, namely the itchy, annoying rash. If you are the parent of a child with chickenpox then use calamine lotion on the spots to ease the itching. And stop him/her from scratching the spots by putting gloves over their hands or keeping their fingernails as short as possible.
Scratching these spots will help spread the rash and can lead to scarring so as tempting as it is don’t scratch.
Over the counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen will ease headaches, muscular pains and a fever. But ask your GP for advice if your child has chickenpox especially if they are less than 3 months old.
Check with either your GP or pharmacist if you or your child has asthma or a stomach ulcer as ibuprofen can cause problems in these cases. This also applies if you are pregnant. Take paracetamol instead and see your GP as you may need antiviral medication.
Wear loose cotton clothing to prevent irritation to the skin and keep your fluids going. Fluid intake is particularly important for children as they are at greater risk of dehydration so ensure that your child drinks plenty of water and other fluids.