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Chicken pox

Chicken pox , sometimes called ‘varicella’, is very common, mostly in children. Discover the causes, symptoms and what you can do.

What is chicken pox?

Chicken pox 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.

Chicken pox is caused by a virus, known as the varicella-zoster virus. This is why chicken pox is sometimes called ‘varicella’.

How contagious is chicken pox?

Chicken pox is very infectious and spreads easily amongst children. There’s an ‘incubation period’, which means it can take between 1 and 3 weeks to start showing symptoms of chicken pox 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 normally 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.

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

Symptoms of chicken pox

A chicken pox 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 chicken pox symptoms include:

  • Temperature

  • Fatigue

  • Aches and pains

  • Loss of appetite

  • Headache

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

How to treat chicken pox

Chicken pox 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, particularly 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 chicken pox as it has been associated with some severe skin reactions.

Can chicken pox be serious?

Sometimes, chicken pox 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 chicken pox infection in the past

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

How can a GP help?

For a child with chicken pox, a GP can help confirm the diagnosis if you suspect it, but are not sure.

If you’re an adult with chicken pox, 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 chicken pox, speak to a GP about your symptoms and what to do next.

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

Lead GP at Livi

Last updated: