Chickenpox is caused by the Varicella Zoster virus (VZV) and is highly infectious. Anyone can be affected but it is most common under the age of 10 years old. It is even more prevalent during Winter and Spring, particularly between the months of February and May. With more cases of the virus appearing this time of year, its best to be prepared with all the information so you can ease your child’s symptoms if they do catch the virus.
Doctor Stephanie Ooi, a GP at MyHealthcare Clinic, discusses common myths and facts that every parent should know about chickenpox:
- FACT- Chickenpox is spread through the air
The reason why chickenpox is so contagious is because it is an airborne disease, which can be spread when an infected person sneezes or coughs. This means you can catch it by being in the same room as someone with chickenpox. Other ways to spread the virus include through skin-to-skin contact, or by touching clothes or sheets that have fluid from the blisters on them. Chickenpox is infectious from around 1-2 days before the spots appear until they are scabbed over (takes roughly 5 days). It’s best to keep your child off nursery, school and other social situations until then.
- MYTH- You need to keep siblings off school as well.
As chickenpox has such an infectious nature, everyone at home is at risk of catching the virus but this is not guaranteed. Normally, it takes 1-2 weeks after being exposed to the virus to develop symptoms, but people aren’t infectious until 1-2 days before. It is usually fine to send siblings to school or nursery until they start showing symptoms. However it may be advisable to keep them away from newborn babies, pregnant women and the very elderly.
- FACT- You don’t always need to see a GP for chickenpox
In most cases, chickenpox is a mild illness that should clear up on its own without the need to see a doctor. However, there are certain cases when it’s best to seek professional medical advice. If you notice that the spots become red, hot and painful these can be signs of a skin infection. There is a risk of dehydration so look out for dark coloured urine, few or no tears when crying or dry lips. An ongoing cough and confusion are also symptoms to look out for. Ultimately, as their parent, you know them best. If they don’t seem right to you then seek medical advice. If however you think the rash might be something else such as measles or impetigo then please see your GP immediately.
- MYTH- You can catch shingles from your child who has chickenpox
It is not possible to catch shingles by being exposed to someone with the chickenpox virus. However, if you’ve never had chickenpox before, you can catch it from someone who has shingles. Once you have had chickenpox, the virus remains inactive in your body. It can be reactivated and appear at a later stage and cause shingles. The exact reason for reactivation is not known but it is linked to having lowered immunity. This can occur in increasing age, emotional or physical stress, or cancer treatment.
- MYTH- Calamine lotion is the best way to soothe the itch
Chickenpox can be unbearably itchy and understandably it is extremely difficult to reason with a young child with an uncontrollable desire to scratch. The itching is not only extremely unpleasant but scratching can also increase chance of scarring or infection. Trim your child’s fingernails and keep them clean and short. You can place gloves or socks over their hands at night to stop scratching. Calamine lotion has previously been used to help but it only provides a temporary cooling effect, can leave skin dry and can be messy. There have been significant advances in over the counter products in recent years and now products like PoxClin CoolMousse* are clinically proven to relieve the uncomfortable itching and irritation, can be easier and less messy to use and importantly, also contain a bacterial blocker which helps prevent reinfection and minimises scarring.
- FACT- You can’t fly abroad with chickenpox.
Unfortunately, due to the highly contagious nature of chickenpox, most airlines will not let you fly if someone in your family has chickenpox. While 90% of adults are immune to chickenpox because they had the illness as a child, airlines still need to be sure you aren’t putting potentially vulnerable people at risk of exposure to the illness. People who are particularly at risk of complications from chickenpox are those receiving cancer treatment, pregnant women or newborn babies.
- MYTH- There is no vaccine for chickenpox available in the UK
While chickenpox vaccine is routinely given in some countries such as Germany and the USA, the NHS childhood vaccination programme doesn’t include a chickenpox vaccine. However, vaccinations can be given on the NHS to those who have close contact with someone who has a weakened immune system e.g. those having chemotherapy or those who have had their spleen removed. Vaccinations are available privately from some private GP or travel clinics. 2 doses are required and prices start from £65 per dose.