Chickenpox

Chickenpox (varicella) is a very contagious (catching) disease. It causes small itchy blisters on your skin.

Summary

Sometimes children scratch the blisters and they can become infected. If this happens, you’ll need to take them to the doctor.

Very occasionally chickenpox can lead to serious complications, such as pneumonia, problems with the kidneys, heart, joints or nervous system. Chickenpox is also serious for pregnant women.

If there are no complications, chickenpox usually clears up within 3–7 days for adults, and 5–10 days for children.

Once you've had chickenpox, you're probably immune - this means your body can fight it off and you won't get sick.  If you've had a very mild case of chickenpox with just a few blisters, it's possible to get it again, but this is very rare.

How is it spread?

The virus is spread through the air by infected people when they sneeze or cough, and by touching the chickenpox blisters then touching objects or other people.

The illness starts 10–21 days after being exposed.

Stop chickenpox spreading

Chickenpox is contagious from 1–2 days before the blisters appear. Avoid close contact with other people, stay home from work and keep children home from school and early childhood education centres for 1 week from the appearance of the rash until all blisters have dried. 

Remember: chickenpox is serious for pregnant women and people who are have a reduced immune response (eg, children with cancer). 

The chickenpox virus is spread through the air by infected people when they sneeze or cough.

  • Always turn away from others and use tissues when you cough or sneeze.
  • Always wash your hands after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.

Chickenpox can also spread through touching the blisters and then touching objects or other people.

  • Wash your hands often, especially if you’re the caregiver of a child with chickenpox – and make sure they do the same.
  • Discourage children from scratching the blisters.

Related websites

Kidshealth
Developed by the Starship Foundation and the Paediatric Society of New Zealand.

Better Health Channel
Consumer health and medical information from the Victoria (Australia) state government.

Symptoms

People with chickenpox have small blisters (like a rash) on their skin.

These can be very itchy.

Other symptoms of chickenpox are:

  • tiredness
  • fever
  • general aches and pains.

How long chickenpox lasts

If there are no complications:

  • adults generally have the chickenpox infection for 3–7 days
  • children are usually ill for about 5–10 days.

Teenagers and adults are more likely to have complications or feel sicker from chickenpox than children.

Treatment

When you need to see the doctor

Infected blisters

Children often find it hard not to scratch the blisters and this can cause some of them to get infected. If this happens, you should take them to the doctor as antibiotics might be needed.

Serious complications

In very rare cases chickenpox can lead to pneumonia or problems with the kidneys, heart or joints. The nervous system may be affected, which may cause irritation and swelling in the brain (such as meningitis).

If you or a family member has any of the following symptoms with chickenpox, see your doctor or call an ambulance immediately:

  • High fever
  • Severe headache
  • Sensitivity to light (light hurts your eyes)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stiff neck
  • Confusion
  • Sleepiness, difficulty waking or unconsciousness
  • Convulsions (fits, seizures).

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.

Chickenpox in pregnancy

Chickenpox during pregnancy can cause poor growth of the baby or even stillbirth.

It can spread to the baby during birth. 

If you’re pregnant and think you have been exposed to chickenpox, you should have a blood test to check whether you’re immune. If you aren’t immune, your doctor may give you an injection that can prevent chickenpox or make it less severe.

Self care

Most people with chickenpox don’t need to see their doctor. Here are some things you can do to get through it (or help your child get through it):

  • Take a lukewarm bath every 3–4 hours for the first few days. Add 4 tablespoons of baking soda, cornstarch or oatmeal to the water. Use soap in one of the baths each day to clean bacteria off your skin.
  • Use calamine lotion on the chickenpox sores to help relieve itching.
  • Put a towel-covered ice pack or cool, moist washcloth on itchy areas for 20–30 minutes. (Don’t share the towel or washcloth with anyone else.)
  • If the itching is severe or is making it hard to sleep, take an antihistamine.
  • Trim your fingernails and wash your hands often to prevent the rash from becoming infected if you scratch it.
  • Take a pain reliever such as paracetamol for headache, fever or general aches and pains.

Prevention

Immunisation

One dose of chickenpox vaccine is free from 1 July 2017 for children aged 15 months, that is, children born from 1 April 2016.  It will also be free for children turning 11 years of age from 1 July 2017 who have never been infected with or previously immunised against chickenpox.

Birth date Eligibility
From 1 April 2016 onwards All children are eligible for one free dose when they turn 15 months of age.
From 1 July 2006 to 31 March 2016 Those who haven't been infected or previously immunised against chickenpox are eligible for one free dose when they turn 11 years of age.

Those with medical conditions that put them at high risk of chickenpox, such as patients before organ transplant or after chemotherapy, are eligible for two free doses of chickenpox vaccine, regardless of age.

For everyone else, chickenpox immunisation is available in New Zealand at a cost. Talk to your doctor if you’d like the chickenpox vaccination for you or your child.

Vaccine

The chickenpox vaccine on the National Immunisation Schedule is Varilrix.  Detailed information about the vaccine is published on the Medsafe website.

Making a decision about immunisation

Effectiveness

One dose of the vaccine will protect around four out of five people from any kind of chickenpox and almost everyone from severe chickenpox.

Some people who have been vaccinated may still get chickenpox, but they will have a milder illness.

Vaccination provides long term but probably not lifelong immunity to chickenpox. 

Risks associated with chickenpox
  • Every year in New Zealand about 60,000 people catch chickenpox. Several hundred people need hospital treatment, and one or two people either die or suffer from long-term disability as a result of chickenpox.
  • The severity and risk of complications is greater for adults. Complications can include severe skin infection, pneumonia and inflammation of the brain, kidney problems and sometimes death.
  • Pregnant women and their babies are at greater risk of harm from chickenpox.  Chickenpox is also dangerous for people whose immune systems are weak, and people with liver or kidney problems.
  • The lesions may leave mild scarring in some skin types.  Chickenpox can lead to shingles many decades after the initial disease.
Risks associated with the vaccine
  • Common reactions following immunisation include fever and tenderness, similar to other childhood vaccines.  As with any vaccine, a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) occurs extremely rarely.  
  • Some people may experience a mild rash similar to chickenpox between 5 and 26 days after immunisation.  In rare cases, this can be contagious – keep any blisters covered and stay away from anyone at risk of severe disease, such as people with weakened immune systems, babies or pregnant women.
Who shouldn’t have the vaccine?

You shouldn’t get immunised against chickenpox if you:

  • are pregnant
  • have a severe allergy to the vaccine or its ingredients, or an immune deficiency condition.

If you have further questions, talk to your doctor or practice nurse or call the Immunisation Advisory Centre free helpline 0800 IMMUNE (0800 466 863).

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