Chickenpox is an acute, infectious disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus that is commonly seen in children under 10 years old.
It can be spread from person to person through direct contact with Chickenpox blisters or spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes and others around inhale the droplets, or when contaminated surfaces or touched.
Although Chickenpox mainly affects children, anyone, at any age, can get it. There is no cure or treatment for this virus, but it usually gets better by itself after 1 to 2 weeks.
The main symptom of Chickenpox is an itchy, spotting rash that can appear anywhere on the body (including; inside of mouth and around the genitals).
The spots will go through three stages; firstly, spots will start off small, they may stay in a small area or spread. The colour of the spots can appear red, pink, darker or the same colour as surrounding skin. The spots will then fill with fluid and become blisters that are very itchy and may burst. After this stage the spots will finally form scabs.
Before the rash appears other symptoms that could be experienced may include:
- a high temperature
- aches and pains, and generally feeling unwell
- loss of appetite
- children may feel miserable
Chickenpox looks the same on adults as children, except adults will have a headache for longer. However, for certain people catching Chickenpox can cause severe complications, those that are more at risk include:
• young babies in the first week of life
• pregnant women
• those who are immunocompromised (weakened immune system)
How to treat
A person with chickenpox will be contagious from 1 to 2 days before the rash starts until blisters crust over - this can take up to 6 days.
Symptoms can be relieved by:
- drinking plenty of fluids regularly
- taking regular pain relief such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.
- using cooling creams or gels from pharmacy
- taking antihistamine medicine for itching, speak to pharmacist
- bathing in cool water and pat the skin dry
- wearing loose clothing
- cutting nails short to stop scratching - socks can be put on hands at night to stop scratching during the night
If further advice is needed people should look to contact their local GP or pharmacist, or NHS 111 if Chickenpox or symptoms get worse or a child becomes dehydrated.
Measures that can be taken to prevent the spread of Chickenpox includes:
- staying at home from school, nursery and work until scabs have crusted over
- avoiding contact with others when infected
- avoiding sharing clothes or linens such as bedding or towels with others
The Chickenpox vaccine is not yet part of the childhood vaccination schedule. The vaccine is currently only being offered by the NHS to people who are in close contact with someone who is particularly vulnerable to Chickenpox or it’s complications.
However, because this vaccine has a small amount of the live virus in it, it is not given to people who are immunosuppressed as it may make them ill.
This vaccine is also offered to those who are at increased risk of Chickenpox due to their work - this includes:
- healthcare workers who are not immune to Chickenpox and are in contact with patients
- laboratory staff who are not immune to Chickenpox and who may be exposed to the virus through their work
The Chickenpox virus can also cause Shingles, which is more common in adults, usually for those aged 50 and over. This can occur after infection of Chickenpox, where the virus can lie dormant until it reappears following reactivation as Shingles.
There is a vaccine available for people aged 70 that will help reduce the risk of getting Shingles. A vaccinated person can still become infected but their symptoms may be milder and the illness shorter.
- Chickenpox - NHS
- Chickenpox vaccine overview - NHS
- Chickenpox: public health management and guidance - GOV.UK
- Notifications of infectious diseases (NOIDs)
Last updated 16 October 2023