Chickenpox is usually a mild and common childhood illness that can also occur at any stage of life. The illness can be associated with severe complications and even death so must be treated seriously in all cases.
Immunisation can help prevent the spread of chickenpox.
Chickenpox causes a rash of red, itchy spots that turn into fluid-filled blisters. They then crust over to form scabs, which eventually drop off.
Your child is likely to have a fever at least for the first few days of the illness and the spots can be incredibly itchy, so expect them to feel pretty miserable and irritable while they have chickenpox.
Some children have only a few spots, but in others they can cover the entire body.
The spots are most likely to appear on the face, ears and scalp, under the arms, on the chest and belly and on the arms and legs.
The incubation period for chickenpox is between one and three weeks. The most infectious time is between one and two days before the rash appears, but it continues to be infectious until all the blisters have crusted over.
Chickenpox can be severe at any age and have serious complications. Complications include:
- bacterial skin infections
- swelling of the membranes covering the brain (aseptic meningitis)
- decrease in blood platelet cell (thrombocytopenia)
- may have a short term effect on movement (acute cerebellar ataxia)
- foetal abnormalities in pregnant women (see below)
- encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).
Pregnant women should be especially careful to avoid chickenpox as it can affect the unborn baby by causing foetal malformations, skin scarring and other serious problems (congenital varicella syndrome).
There is no specific treatment for chickenpox, but there are medicines and pharmacy products which can help alleviate symptoms, such as:
- paracetamol to relieve fever
- calamine lotion and cooling gels to ease itching.
In most children, the blisters crust up and fall off naturally within one to two weeks.
Adults who have had chickenpox as a child may also get shingles later in life, as they are both caused by the virus varicella zoster.
Last reviewed: October 2016