By Dr Nina Byrnes
In association with Hidden Hearing
Avoiding the chickenpox plague
Several children at my daughter’s primary school have come down with chicken pox lately so I suspect my daughter will soon contract the disease. I know it’s quite common but I still can’t help worrying. What symptoms should I look out for and if she does get it, how can I help her clear it up quickly?
You’re right Geraldine; chicken pox, or varicella, is a quite common disease, especially in children since we don’t immunise against it here or in Britain. But despite its prevalence, there is still some conflicting advice on how it should be managed.
The disease is indeed highly contagious so your child is at risk of catching it from other sufferers. A child (or adult) with the disease is contagious from 48 hours before a rash first appears so it can be difficult to monitor. The early signs are fever and flu-like symptoms.
The disease is spread via secretions or by direct contact with spots. The contagion lasts until 24 hours after the last chicken pox spot has crusted. From beginning to end, this period usually lasts no more than seven days and sometimes as little as five.
The good news is that once your child has chicken pox, she is then immune for life, although in less than one fifth of cases, the virus can lie dormant and reactivate itself later as shingles.
It is possible, in turn, to catch chicken pox from shingles but the opposite isn’t the case.
The chicken pox rash can be quite unsightly, starting on the trunk and face and spreading quickly all around the body. On average, sufferers get around 200 spots. Each begins as a small red lesion then turns to a blister which eventually crusts over.
Thankfully, in most children, the disease passes quickly with no serious problems beyond a fever and an uncomfortable itch. It may not be necessary to visit a doctor. You should trim your child’s fingernails to temper scratching and, if needed, you can use Paracetamol and ibuprofen to treat fever and malaise, while antihistamines can be used to treat the itch.
These are not licensed for use on children under the age of two, but are sometimes given with doctor’s supervision and can help.
Calamine lotion is often used but, in my opinion, doesn’t really help. I prefer to recommend tepid baths with bread soda or oatmeal.
While most outbreaks are straightforward, if your child has another illness or underlying condition, you need to be more careful, as more severe complications can occur.
The most dangerous of these are encephalitis (brain inflammation), pneumonia or a superimposed skin infection. If your child’s fever is slow to settle or if she is suffering associated headache, drowsiness, shortness of breath or ooze from the blisters, you should see a doctor immediately.
Just a reminder also that pregnant women who have not previously had chicken pox need to avoid contracting the disease and should see a doctor immediately if exposed to it when more than 28 weeks’ pregnant.
Medical advice provided is not always suitable for specific cases. Always see your GP if you are concerned about a medical problem.