What is chickenpox and what are the symptoms?
Chickenpox, also known as varicella, is a contagious disease cause by the varicella zoster virus. Symptoms usually start around 2 weeks after infection with the chickenpox virus.
Look out for an itchy red rash that turns into blisters which burst and form a hard crust. Often, chickenpox will also cause flu-like symptoms such as a headache, fever or a sore throat. You can expect these symptoms to last between 10 and 21 days.
Can adults catch chickenpox?
Chickenpox can affect people at any age. The disease is more severe in adults than children, and in particular pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems. Chickenpox is considered a serious disease in adults because it can have long-term or severe consequences such as scarring, pneumonia, and occasionally brain damage or death. Infection during pregnancy can also affect the health of the baby. Having chickenpox once doesn’t mean you can’t have it again, and it can come back later in life in the form of shingles (herpes zoster).
How does chickenpox spread?
Chickenpox is highly contagious and spreads quickly among people who have not been immunised and who have been in contact with an infected person, either a child or an adult.
A person with the chickenpox virus can spread the disease in 2 ways. First, before the rash appears, the virus spreads through cough droplets that travel through the air. This means that it can be spread from an infected person before they know that they are sick. Second, and later in the disease, once symptoms have developed, the virus is spread through contact with the fluid in the blisters. Someone with chickenpox is still contagious up to 5 days after the blisters have dried up and formed a crust.
If you think you might have chickenpox, it is important to see your doctor to get a diagnosis. Be sure to call ahead and let the receptionist know of your concern so staff can ensure others in the waiting room are protected.
How can chickenpox be prevented?
The best way to protect yourself against chickenpox is through vaccination. The vast majority of vaccinated people will not get chickenpox, and those that do get infected will generally have a milder form with fewer blisters, a lower fever and a quicker recovery. The chickenpox vaccine will also protect you against developing shingles later in life.
I’m planning a pregnancy — should I be vaccinated?
If you are looking to become pregnant and have never had chickenpox, ask your doctor if you can get vaccinated. Your partner might also want to consider vaccination since the vaccine is recommended for all adults who have never had chickenpox or previously been vaccinated.
Vaccination for certain groups of people is free under the National Immunisation Program.
Timing is important for pre-pregnancy vaccination: the recommendation is for 2 doses of chickenpox vaccine given at least 4 weeks apart, with the second dose at least one month before stopping contraception.
Vaccinations and pregnancy
Some vaccinations are recommended before pregnancy, while others you can safely have during pregnancy.
What if I catch chickenpox while pregnant?
If you’ve been exposed to someone with chickenpox during pregnancy and you’re not immune, contact your doctor immediately since they may recommend an injection of antibodies. Receiving this injection within 10 days of exposure may reduce the chances of catching the virus, decrease its severity or speed up your recovery.
Are there complications for the unborn baby?
When a woman is pregnant while infected with chickenpox, the unborn baby may also be affected. The impact on the baby will depend on several factors, including how many weeks pregnant the mother is. There is no evidence of an increased chance of miscarriage if the mother is not yet 28 weeks pregnant. While the risk is very low, it is possible that the unborn baby could develop foetal varicella syndrome (FVS) which can damage the baby’s organs, arms and legs.
Other complications for the baby include:
- If the mother is infected in the first 20 weeks, the baby has a risk of eye defects, neurological problems, skin scarring and small limbs.
- If the mother is infected between 20 and 36 weeks, the baby has a risk of developing shingles as a baby or young child.
- If the mother is infected within 4 weeks of birth, the virus may be active in the baby, and can cause the baby to be born with chickenpox.
What might chickenpox mean for labour and birth?
A newborn baby may develop chickenpox if the mother was infected or developed a rash up to one week before the birth and until 2 days afterwards. These babies are considered to be at high risk and should be treated with an immunoglobulin as soon as possible after birth to help prevent them contracting the disease.
Chickenpox in babies and children
Find out how babies and children can catch chickenpox, how to treat your child at home, and when to have them vaccinated.
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Last reviewed: March 2021