- Chickenpox is a highly infectious viral infection causing a rash of small, red spots that later develop into blisters which can become very itchy.
- The chickenpox virus spreads via personal contact, sneezing or coughing.
- If your child has chickenpox, isolate them from other people, especially pregnant women and those trying to get pregnant until all the blisters have dried.
- The best way to avoid chickenpox is by immunisation; the only treatment is to relieve the symptoms.
- The virus is common in childhood, but can occur at any stage of life.
What is chickenpox?
Chickenpox is a highly infectious viral infection. It causes a rash of itchy red spots that turn into fluid-filled blisters before they crust over and fall off.
Chickenpox is usually mild and generally occurs during childhood, but it can appear at any stage of life. It tends to be more severe in adults than in children.
Most healthy children and adults recover from the infection with no lasting ill effects, simply by resting, just as with cold or flu. However, chickenpox may also be associated with severe complications — and even death — so it should be treated seriously in all cases.
Pregnant women should be especially careful to avoid chickenpox since it can affect their unborn baby by causing fetal malformations, skin scarring and other serious problems. This is known as congenital varicella syndrome.
What are the symptoms of chickenpox?
Chickenpox usually starts with cold-like symptoms such as a runny nose and a slight temperature, followed by a rash.
The rash starts as small, itchy red spots that turn into very itchy blisters that are filled with fluid. These are most common on the face and trunk and less common on the limbs. The spots can appear anywhere on the body, including inside the ears and mouth, throat, eyes and genitals.
After a day or 2, the fluid in the blisters gets cloudy and they begin to dry out and crust over. After 1 to 2 weeks, the scabs fall off naturally.
New spots may keep appearing in waves for 3 to 5 days after the rash begins. Different clusters of spots may therefore be at different stages of blistering or drying out.
These scabs do not leave scars unless they are badly infected.
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use our rashes and skin problems Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
What causes chickenpox?
Chickenpox is caused by the varicella zoster virus. The virus can be spread either through close person-to-person contact, or through sneezing and coughing. Later in the illness, the virus is spread by direct contact with the fluid in the blisters. You can also catch the virus by handling items and surfaces that have been contaminated and then transferring the virus to yourself by touching your face.
Chickenpox infection triggers an immune response and people usually do not get it twice. The infection is highly contagious to people who have never had chickenpox or who have not been vaccinated.
Children and adults who have not had chickenpox can develop it if they come into contact with someone who has shingles.
When should I see my doctor?
You do not need to go to your doctor or emergency department unless you are not sure that it is chickenpox, or your child is very unwell or distressed.
Contact your doctor immediately if you have been in contact with someone who has chickenpox or if you have chickenpox symptoms and:
- you are pregnant
- you have a weakened immune system (the body's defence system)
- you have a baby who is less than 4 weeks old
- you are breastfeeding
Chickenpox in these instances can cause serious complications if left untreated. Contact your doctor straightaway if you or your child develop any abnormal symptoms. These include:
- the skin surrounding the blisters becomes red and painful
- pain in the chest or difficulty breathing
- drowsiness, severe headaches or trouble with co-ordination
- becoming more unwell, not better, as was expected
Your doctor can also advise about whether you should continue breastfeeding your baby.
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How is chickenpox diagnosed?
You or your child should not usually need any medical tests to be diagnosed with chickenpox. You can be fairly sure that it is chickenpox if you have the key symptoms: a mild fever followed by an itchy rash, blisters and scabs.
The chickenpox spots are usually distinctive enough that they will not be confused with other rashes, although occasionally they can be confused with other conditions that affect the skin. These include some insect bites or scabies (a contagious skin condition that causes intense itching).
If you have had chickenpox in the past, then it is extremely unlikely that you will develop chickenpox for a second time. If you have never had chickenpox, or you are unsure whether you have had it, then you may need an immunity test. This is a blood test that checks whether you are producing the antibodies to the chickenpox virus.
If your blood test result shows that you have the antibodies, you will be naturally protected from the virus. If you do not have the antibodies, then you will need to be monitored closely to see if you develop chickenpox symptoms. A post-exposure vaccination can reduce the risk of developing chickenpox.
How is chickenpox treated?
Adults with chickenpox may benefit from taking antiviral medicine if treatment can be started early in the course of the illness.
But generally, there is no cure or specific treatment for chickenpox. Treatment is geared towards relieving the symptoms:
- Make sure that you (or your child) have plenty to drink.
- Use paracetamol to relieve the fever and discomfort.
- Baths, loose comfortable clothes, antihistamines and calamine lotion can all ease the itchiness. Gauze pads soaked in bicarbonate of soda and water and then placed over the sores can also calm the itch for a while.
- It is important not to scratch or pick at the spots since this will increase the risk of scarring. It is hard for children not to scratch, so give them plenty of praise and encouragement. Try to distract them to take their mind off the itching. Cut and blunt fingernails so they are short to prevent them scratching and risking a bacterial infection.
You should seek medical advice if you develop any abnormal symptoms, such as infected blisters.
Should I keep away from school or work?
Anyone with chickenpox should remain isolated from other people until all the spots have crusted over. This will mean taking time off work and restricting social interactions, while children will need to stay home from school and childcare.
If your child has chickenpox, you should keep them out of childcare or school until all blisters have dried, which is usually around 5 days after the rash first appeared.
Here’s a list of common childhood illnesses, including chickenpox, and their recommended exclusion periods.
Pregnancy and chickenpox contact
It’s especially important that someone with chickenpox stays away from pregnant women and those trying to get pregnant. In women who have never had chickenpox, catching the virus during pregnancy can cause miscarriage or the baby may be born with complications caused by the chickenpox.
If either you or your child has had contact with a pregnant woman just before they became unwell, let the woman know about the chickenpox and suggest that she sees her doctor or midwife.
Can chickenpox be prevented?
The best way to avoid chickenpox is to have your child immunised. Chickenpox vaccination is recommended as part of routine childhood immunisation to help prevent the disease.
Chickenpox vaccine is free under the National Immunisation Program Schedule. To receive immunisation, visit your local doctor or immunisation provider. Remember that although the vaccine is provided at no cost, a consultation fee may apply.
The chickenpox vaccination is given on its own or combined with vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella. A catch-up program is available for children aged around 12 to 13 years who have not had chickenpox or received the varicella vaccine.
If you are an adult who has never had chickenpox and you have not been vaccinated, talk to your doctor about whether you need a catch-up vaccine.
The vaccine should not be given to pregnant women, and you should avoid getting pregnant for 28 days after receiving the vaccination. Breastfeeding women can receive the vaccination.
The vaccine should not be given to people whose immune systems are affected by a medical condition or who are taking high doses of immune suppressing medicine or people who have had an anaphylaxis after receiving the chickenpox vaccine in the past.
Vaccination is your best protection against chickenpox. This table explains how the vaccine is given, who should get it, and whether it is on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. Some diseases can be prevented with different vaccines, so talk to your doctor about which one is appropriate for you.
At what age is vaccination for chickenpox recommended?
In children aged 12 months to 14 years. The National Immunisation Program Schedule recommends it be given at the 18-month vaccination. They only need 1 dose.
In adolescents aged over 14 and adults who have not been vaccinated against varicella and have not had chicken pox, 2 doses of varicella-containing vaccine at least 4 weeks apart are recommended, particularly healthcare workers, childhood educators and carers and people who work in long-term care facilities.
How is it administered?
|The vaccine is given by injection.|
Is it free?
Vaccination is free for children at age 18 months and people under 20 years old, refugees and other humanitarian entrants to Australia of any age.
Find out more on the Department of Health website and the National Immunisation Program Schedule. Ask your doctor whether you are eligible for additional free vaccines based on your situation or location.
Common side effects
What are the complications of chickenpox?
Chickenpox can be severe at any age and can have serious complications. These complications include:
- bacterial skin infections
- swelling of the membranes that cover the brain (aseptic meningitis)
- a decrease in blood platelet cells (thrombocytopenia)
- bleeding problems
- infection of the blood (sepsis)
- inflammation or infection of the brain (encephalitis)
- trouble with balance and co-ordination (cerebellar ataxia)
- fetal abnormalities in pregnant women (see below)
The varicella zoster virus that causes chickenpox can be reactivated many years after the initial infection and cause shingles (herpes zoster).
Resources and support
- Visit the Chickenpox immunisation service for more information about the chickenpox vaccine.
- If you need to know more about chickenpox, or need advice on what to do next, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).
Do you prefer other languages than English? This website offers translated information:
- Health Translations, Victoria: Measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox immunisation information (in more than 15 languages)
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Last reviewed: April 2021