Chickenpox: Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

Published on 
June 27, 2013

megan-summers-author-banner 101613 I remember having chickenpox when I was a kid and I thought it was the worst thing possible. I looked like a Dalmatian puppy with pink spots of calamine lotion from head to toe. I cried because I thought I didn’t look like a pretty princess anymore. Most of all, I remember being so itchy! But I survived with the remedies I am sharing in this blog post. When I was a kid, RN Remedies didn’t exist to help my parents during that time in my life. I am glad I can help you as you navigate your child’s chickenpox experience. Keep reading and learn about what signs to look for if you think your child has chickenpox, how to manage the symptoms, when you should call the doctor and the importance of vaccination.

What are the Symptoms of Chickenpox?

Symptoms start to appear 10 to 21 days after your child contracts the virus from another child or adult with chickenpox. Chickenpox often starts with flu-like symptoms such as fever, tiredness, headache, sore throat, loss of appetite or stomach aches. These symptoms typically last for a few days, with a fever in the 100°-102°F range.

Chickenpox: Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

Here are the clear signs and stages of chickenpox:

  1. A red, itchy rash will typically appear first on your child’s abdomen, back and face.
  2. The red, itchy rash can spread to other parts of your child’s body, including the scalp, inside the mouth, arms, legs and genitals.
  3. The rash will begin as multiple small red bumps like pimples or insect bites.
  4. The small red bumps then turn into raised fluid-filled blisters. Once the blisters pop, they become open sores that will eventually crust over and become dry, brown scabs in about a week. However, the rash can appear on your child’s body at any stage (red bumps, blisters, scabs) at the same time. The scabs usually fall off without any scarring.

When is Chickenpox Contagious?

Chickenpox is contagious about two days before your child begins to show signs of the virus and up until all the chickenpox blisters are crusted over. Chickenpox spreads through air (coughing and sneezing) and by direct contact with mucus, saliva or fluid from open sores or blisters. It is not uncommon that most kids with a sibling who has chickenpox will get it as well. However, if they have already had chickenpox, they most likely will not contract it a second time. To prevent chickenpox from spreading at home, make sure your family washes their hands frequently, especially after eating and using the restroom. Try to keep the infected sibling away from unvaccinated siblings as much as possible. I will talk more about chickenpox vaccination below. Any child with chickenpox should stay home and rest because it is VERY contagious.  A child with chickenpox should be kept out of school or day care until all blisters have crusted or dried. If you are unsure about whether your child should return to school, ask your doctor.

How is Chickenpox Treated?

The goal of treatment is treating the symptoms and making your child comfortable. Since chickenpox is caused by a virus, antibiotics cannot treat or cure it. Yet, antibiotics may be prescribed if the blisters and open sores become infected by bacteria due to your child scratching. Antiviral medications may be prescribed for those at a higher risk of developing complications, such as pneumonia or encephalitis (brain swelling) from chickenpox due to a weakened immune system. The following suggestions will be helpful to relieve the itchiness and other discomforts from chickenpox:

  • Use cool wet compresses or give your child a bath in cool or lukewarm water every three to four hours for the first few days to help relieve itching. Oatmeal bath products work well to improve itching. Remember to pat (do not rub) your child’s body dry.
  • Calamine lotion is the most common lotion used for chickenpox. This can be applied to the blisters on your child’s body to help dry them out and soothe the skin (do not use it on the face, especially near the eyes).
  • Avoid itching! Discourage your child as much as possible from itching and scratching as it may cause the blisters to become infected. Consider placing mittens or socks on their hands during sleep. Consider trimming fingernails and cleaning them daily to rid any built up bacteria underneath the nails.
  • You may give your child over-the-counter acetaminophen around the clock, as prescribed, to help relieve fevers, flu-like symptoms and pain from sores or mouth blisters.
  • You may give your child over-the-counter antihistamines to help relieve itching. Antihistamines can cause drowsiness and may be helpful at night to help your child sleep.

Drinking and eating may be difficult if your child has mouth sores. Serve foods that are cold, soft and bland. Avoid foods that are acidic or salty, like orange juice or pretzels.

When Should You Call the Doctor for Chickenpox?

Most chickenpox infections require no special medical treatment or hospitalization. However, some serious complications include bacterial infections of the skin, dehydration, pneumonia (lung infection) and encephalitis (brain swelling). Call your pediatrician if your child:

  • Has a fever that lasts for more than four days or rises above 102°F
  • Has a severe cough or trouble breathing
  • Has an area of rash that leaks pus (thick, yellowish fluid) or becomes red, warm, swollen or sore
  • Has a severe headache
  • Is unusually drowsy, confused or has trouble waking up
  • Has trouble looking at bright lights
  • Has difficulty walking
  • Has a stiff neck
  • Has frequent vomiting

If you need to take your child to the doctor for any reason related to chickenpox, let the doctor’s office know in advance that your child may have or has chickenpox. Remember it is highly contagious and it is important to avoid exposing other kids.

Is There a Vaccine for Chickenpox?

The best way to prevent chickenpox is to get the chickenpox vaccine. The vaccine is safe and effective at preventing disease. It significantly reduces the chances of your child getting the chickenpox virus. Keep in mind, the vaccine helps prevent chickenpox, but it does not mean your child cannot ever contract chickenpox. If you are a parent who does not believe in vaccinations, your child may get the chickenpox and recover just fine. However, it has been shown that vaccinated children who do get chickenpox tend to have milder cases and a quicker recovery as compared to those children who are not vaccinated. If you’re interested in getting your child vaccinated, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends two doses of chickenpox (varicella) vaccine for children, adolescents and adults. Children should receive two doses of the vaccine, the first dose at 12 through 15 months old and a second dose at four to six years old. According to the CDC, two doses of the vaccine are about 98 percent effective at preventing chickenpox. The varicella vaccine is NOT recommended if:

  • Your child is currently sick
  • Your child has had an allergic reaction to gelatin or to the antibiotic neomycin
  • Your child has had an allergic reaction to a previous dose of varicella vaccine
  • Your child has recently received a blood transfusion or blood products
  • Your child has a disorder that affects and weakens the immune system (such as cancer); OR is currently taking steroids such as prednisone or other immunosuppressive drugs
  • Your child is undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy

When your child is battling chickenpox, remember to keep them at home to protect others. Also, if you decide to get your child vaccinated you are not only protecting them, you are protecting others in the community. *Thank you to Daryl Strano Albertson, MPH, Infection Preventionist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Infection Prevention and Control for her contributions to this blog.