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Early symptoms of chickenpox, how to treat it and when to worry


Nov 15, 2023

Health experts have this week recommended children as young as 12 months old be given a chickenpox vaccination to protect them against the highly infectious disease.

Chickenpox mostly affects children, though it can be caught at any age. Most cases are fairly mild but some children will go on to develop complications, including bacterial infections such as group A streptococcus, more commonly known as Strep A.

In rare cases it can cause a swelling of the brain, called encephalitis, an inflammation of the lungs, called pneumonitis, and stroke, which can result in hospitalisation and, in very rare cases, death.

READ MORE: Girl, 4, left fighting for life after catching chickenpox

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It is important to be aware of the symptoms so you know how best to help your child, should they become unwell. Reading, Basingstoke, Berkshire

What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

The main symptom of chickenpox is a red, itchy, spotty rash, which can be found anywhere on the body. According to the NHS, chickenpox happens in three stages.

New spots can appear while others are becoming blisters or forming a scab. Stage one sees spots appear and these can be anywhere on the body, and can spread or stay in a small area.

The spots can be red or pink, or the same colour or darker than your natural skin tone. During stage two the spots fill with fluid and become blisters. The blisters are very itchy and may burst.

Stage three sees the spots form scabs – some of which are flaky, while others leak fluid.

Other symptoms include a high temperature, aches and pains and general malaise, and a loss of appetite. Chickenpox spots look the same on children and adults. But adults usually have a high temperature for longer and more spots than children.

Can you get chickenpox more than once?

According to John Hopkins Medicine most people who have had chickenpox will be immune to the disease for the rest of their lives. However, the virus remains inactive in nerve tissue and may reactivate later in life causing shingles.

You can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles if you have not had chickenpox before. However, very rarely, a second case of chickenpox does happen.

What should you do if your child gets chickenpox?

Chickenpox is generally thought of as a mild childhood illness though it can can be serious, even life-threatening for babies, adults, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems. Chickenpox usually gets better by itself after 1 to 2 weeks.

The have NHS issued the following list on how to treat chickenpox:

  • Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration
  • Take paracetamol to help with discomfort
  • Cut your child's fingernails or put socks on their hands at night to stop them scratching
  • Use cooling creams or gels to numb the pain
  • Speak to a pharmacist about using antihistamine medicine
  • Bathe in cool water and pat skin dry
  • Wear loose clothes

When should you take further action about chickenpox and its symptoms?

NHS guidance states you should speak to a GP if you are not sure it's chickenpox and are concerned about your child. You should tell the receptionist you think it might be chickenpox before going in to a GP surgery.

You should call 111 for immediate advice if:

  • the skin around the chickenpox blisters is hot, painful and red, but redness may be harder to see on brown or black skin
  • your child has chickenpox and is dehydrated
  • chickenpox symptoms suddenly get worse
  • you're pregnant and have not had chickenpox before, or you're not sure, and you've been near someone with chickenpox
  • you have a weakened immune system and have been near someone with chickenpox
  • you think your newborn baby has chickenpox

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