Chickenpox in babies and children
What is chickenpox?
Chickenpox (also known as varicella) is generally a mild viral illness in children and babies that causes an itchy, red, blistering rash. Although common in children, the virus can affect anyone at any age. Chickenpox is closely related to shingles, and both conditions are caused by the varicella zoster virus.
Healthy children usually recover quickly and completely from chickenpox, but doctors do consider chickenpox serious since it can trigger other health issues.
What are the symptoms of chickenpox?
If your baby or child has chickenpox, they will have an itchy, red rash all over their body. The rash will turn into blisters with fluid inside which, over time, will pop and form a crusty surface. Your child may also feel generally unwell with a headache, sore throat or fever. An infected child is most likely to show symptoms 2 weeks after they catch the virus. These symptoms will continue for approximately 10 to 21 days.
Is chickenpox contagious?
Chickenpox is highly contagious and spreads quickly in places such as childcare facilities, playgrounds and at home. The virus can be spread in 2 ways:
- Through contact with the fluid in an infected person’s chickenpox blisters.
- Through the sneeze and cough droplets of an infected person which travel through the air.
An infected child is contagious for between 1 and 2 days before the rash appears until all of their blisters have scabbed over. This process may take 5 to 10 days.
Does my child need to see a doctor?
If you think your child has chickenpox, take them to see a doctor. Your doctor can usually diagnose chickenpox simply by looking at the rash. However, they can also test the fluid from your child’s blisters to confirm the presence of the varicella zoster virus. Your doctor will also tell you when your child is no longer contagious and when it is safe for them to go back to school and play with friends.
How can I reduce the chance my child will get chickenpox?
The best protection against chickenpox you can give your child is through immunisation. This will prevent most children from getting chickenpox. A minority of vaccinated children will still catch the virus, but they will have a much milder form and are less likely to have complications.
Immunisation will also help prevent your child from catching shingles when they get older.
Australian medical guidelines recommend that children between the ages of 12 months and 14 years have at least one dose of chickenpox vaccine, ideally at 18 months of age. A second dose at least 4 weeks later can provide extra protection against the virus.
Immunisation and vaccinations for your child
Immunisation is a simple, safe and effective way of protecting children against certain diseases. Discover more about childhood vaccinations.
What other precautions can I take?
Chickenpox is highly contagious and spreads quickly through households, schools and childcare centres, so it’s important to take care to limit the spread.
If your child has chickenpox, there are precautions you can take to reduce the chance of spread to other members of your family, as well as to classmates and friends. A child with chickenpox should stay at home from school or childcare until they are no longer infectious. Hand hygiene is important for all members of the household, and if they are old enough, children should be taught to cover their sneezes and coughs, placing tissues straight into the rubbish bin.
It is especially important to keep a contagious child away from pregnant women because during pregnancy, chickenpox can be serious for both the mother and the baby.
How should I care for my child at home?
In most cases, a baby or child with chickenpox won’t need any medicines. However, if they are feeling itchy or feverish, try these approaches to help to relieve pain or discomfort:
- Sorbolene cream, or a similar soothing lotion, helps to relieve itchiness.
- Bathing your child in lukewarm water with oatmeal or baking soda can also relieve itchiness.
- Paracetamol may help to reduce a child’s fever.
- Your child may feel weak and need to rest more than usual.
If your child is feeling unwell or has a more serious case of chickenpox speak with your child’s doctor for specific advice.
How serious is chickenpox?
While most children experience mild symptoms, some cases can result in complications or hospitalisation because of infection with the chickenpox virus. Every year, 800 babies and children under the age of 5 are admitted to hospital with serious cases of chickenpox.
Adults, adolescents and pregnant women are more likely to experience a serious case of chickenpox, and people with immune system disorders should take particular care to avoid exposure — especially if they are unvaccinated.
Serious complications of chickenpox include inflammation in and around the brain (cerebellitis, meningitis or encephalitis).
To locate a health service where you can have your child vaccinated, visit our Service Finder tool.
Are you pregnant or planning a pregnancy?
Learn more about how chickenpox during pregnancy can affect you and your baby.
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Last reviewed: March 2021