Chickenpox (varicella) is a relatively minor illness. Almost all children will get it. The first couple of days, your child will be in generally ill health, with a cold, cough, fever, and abdominal pain, then a rash of red, pimple-like spots appears. A child may have just one or two spots or the rash may cover the entire body, including the throat, mouth, ears, groin, and scalp. The spots turn into clear blisters that become cloudy, break open, and crust over. This rash itches a lot. Spots continue to appear for one to five days, and subside over a week or two.
Chickenpox is very contagious. After exposure, symptoms occur in ten days to three weeks. It is contagious for one to two days before the rash appears, and for up to five days after spots appear. Children can generally return to school or day care when all the spots have scabbed, or on the sixth day after the rash appeared. Encephalitis is a rare complication of chickenpox.
There is no useful prevention. In fact, the illness is milder for a child than an adult, so some parents willingly expose their children. Adults who have not had chickenpox should avoid exposure to children who have it, and avoid exposure to people who have shingles. Pregnant women who have never had chickenpox should be especially careful, since the illness can harm the developing fetus.
- Use acetaminophen to relieve fever. No aspirin! Do not give aspirin to children and teens under age 20 who may have chickenpox because aspirin use is related to Reye’s Syndrome.
- Control the itching. Oral Benadryl and warm baths with some baking soda or Aveeno Colloidal oatmeal added to the water will help.
- Cut the child’s fingernails to prevent scratching. If scabs are scratched off too early, they may become infected.
When to Call a Health Professional:
- If your child is at risk of complications from chickenpox (is taking steroid medications or cancer chemotherapy, or has immunodeficiency problems).
- If a child age three months to three years has a fever of 103 or higher for 24 hours.
- If severe itching cannot be controlled by Benadryl and warm baths.
- If bruising appears without injury.
- If sores appear in the eyes.
- If you notice signs of encephalitis.
- Fever, severe headache, and stiff neck.
- Usual sleepiness or lethargy.
- Persistent vomiting.