Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Chickenpox, sometimes called varicella, causes an itchy, spotted rash. It’s most common in children. Discover the causes, symptoms and what you can do.

What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is an infection which causes a very itchy, widespread rash. It’s very common in children and it normally needs no treatment. Usually, the infection will be resolved within 7-10 days.

Chickenpox is caused by a virus called the varicella-zoster virus. This is why chickenpox is sometimes called ‘varicella’.

What are the signs of chickenpox?

A chickenpox skin rash typically causes widespread, itchy red spots. These often appear on the chest, back or face first, and then they can spread over the whole body – even inside the mouth. The spots are usually flat at first, but then become fluid-filled and blistered. The blisters then burst and scab over.

Other chickenpox symptoms include:

In adults, chickenpox symptoms tend to be more severe, with a greater chance of developing complications from the infection.

When is chickenpox contagious?

Chickenpox is very infectious and spreads easily. There’s an ‘incubation period’, which means it can take between 1 and 3 weeks to start showing symptoms of chickenpox after the time you or your child were exposed to the virus.

The infectious period begins 2 days before the rash appears and lasts until the spots have fully crusted over (which is usually about 5 days after they first appeared). Children in this infectious period should be kept at home, away from schools or nurseries where they could spread the infection to others.

You can catch chickenpox from someone who has shingles, but not the other way around. Shingles is the reactivation of the varicella virus so can’t be ‘caught’ from someone with chickenpox. 

How common is chickenpox?

Most children under the age of 10 will get chickenpox at some point. It’s so common in childhood that 90% of adults are immune to the virus because they’ve already had it.

It is possible to get chickenpox more than once, although this is quite rare.

How to treat chickenpox

Chickenpox is usually self-limiting and will resolve by itself within 7-10 days, but it can be itchy and uncomfortable. These tips may help your child:

  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially if there’s a fever

  • Use ice lollies to ease discomfort in the mouth

  • Make sure nails are cut short to avoid traumatising the skin through scratching

  • Put gloves or socks on hands at night to prevent scratching

  • Bathe in cool water and pat the skin dry to reduce itching

  • Wear smooth, cotton fabrics

A pharmacist can help you source:

  • Paracetamol for discomfort or for temperature

  • Cooling gels and creams, like calamine lotion which can reducing itching

  • Antihistamine medication (in a tablet or syrup form) to reduce itching

Do not use ibuprofen to treat chickenpox as it has been associated with some severe skin reactions.

Can chickenpox be serious?

Sometimes, chickenpox can be more serious, and this is more likely in:

  • Newborn babies

  • People with a weakened immune system

  • Pregnant women who have not had a chickenpox infection in the past

These groups of people should speak to a GP for further advice.

Can I go to work if my child has chickenpox?

If you have chickenpox yourself, stay at home until you’re no longer infectious. This is should be 5 days from the start of the rash. 

If your child has chickenpox, it’s your choice whether to go to work but you should avoid contact with newborn babies, pregnant women and anyone who may have a weakened immune system. You may be carrying the virus and have not shown any symptoms yet. 

Who should have the chickenpox vaccine?

The chickenpox vaccine isn’t part of a child’s routine vaccinations. Usually chickenpox is mild and complications are rare, but it’s recommended you or your child has a chickenpox vaccine if you have a weakened immune system or are in close contact with more vulnerable people.

When should I seek help?

For a child with chickenpox, a GP can help confirm the diagnosis if you suspect it, but are not sure. If you’re pregnant and did not have chickenpox as a child it’s important to seek help from a GP.

If you’re an adult with chickenpox, antiviral medication can be helpful to reduce the severity of the illness. This is most effective when given very early in the course of the illness. If you suspect you might have signs of chickenpox, speak to a GP about your symptoms and what to do next.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi