Chicken pox is a common but contagious childhood infection that manifests as itchy red bumps on the skin, fever, headache or abdominal pain. Find out more about the virus, how to prevent it and how to treat it.
Chicken pox, also called varicella, is a common childhood illness and one that may well affect your toddler. It typically appears as an itchy rash of small red bumps that are seen on the scalp, face, or trunk. These quickly change into blisters filled with a clear fluid which then burst leaving dry brown crusts. Waves of these blisters will appear as the chicken pox progresses and the condition will be seen over their entire body. Chicken pox usually lasts five to ten days and may be accompanied by a fever, headache or abdominal pain. Your toddler may also be irritable and have a loss of appetite. For a couple of days before the rash appears, they may have a cough or a runny nose.
The varicella zoster virus is responsible for the chicken pox virus and this is highly infectious and passed from person to person very easily. If your toddler hasn’t been immunised with the chicken pox vaccine, they are very likely to contract the condition if they are exposed to an infected person. People with chicken pox can spread the virus through direct contact with another person or by coughing, sneezing or just breathing. Once your toddler has been exposed to the virus, it usually takes 14 to 16 days for the blisters to appear, although they can show up anytime between ten and 21 days.
Normally, for a healthy toddler, chicken pox passes without any major problems. Rarely, it can develop into more serious complications, such as a skin infection (when bacteria enter the exposed blisters), or pneumonia, or encephalitis, which is an infection causing a swelling of the brain. It can cause problems for your toddler if they have a weakened immune system from a chronic illness such as leukaemia, or from taking high-dose steroids for medical conditions such as asthma. If your toddler’s immune system is compromised, you should call the doctor at the first sign of chicken pox or if you are worried that they have been exposed to someone who is infected. Adults who develop chicken pox are often much sicker than toddlers and the condition poses a special risk for pregnant women.
A chicken pox vaccine has been available since 1995 and it is recommended that children receive two doses of this; the first one at 12 to 15 months of age and the second one at 4 to 6 years. The vaccine causes few side effects in healthy children and prevents more than 95 percent from contracting a serious case of chicken pox. The vaccination isn’t recommended for every toddler, particularly if they have certain allergies or any illness that affects their immune system. Speak to your doctor (if you haven’t already) to find out if immunising your child is a good idea.
You should keep your child at home and avoid having them mix with other children and adults, especially pregnant women. This will give them time to recuperate and minimise the spread of the virus to others. They should remain out of contact with others until their blisters have crusted over to prevent the spread of the disease. Unfortunately, children with chicken pox are most contagious the day or two before the rash appears and this is usually before parents know that they are sick. Relief of your child’s itching is one of the most comforting things you can do and this can be accomplished by providing a cool bath with emollient cream added every few. Keeping your toddler’s nails short will help to prevent skin damage from scratching, which can slow the healing process and leave scars. Scratching can also lead to skin infections, such as impetigo. Itchiness can also be relieved with a children’s antihistamine preparation (again, ask your doctor for this).
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