What is chickenpox?
Chickenpox (also known as varicella) is generally a mild illness in babies and children. It causes an itchy, red, blistering rash.
Chickenpox is closely related to shingles. Both conditions are caused by the varicella zoster virus.
Although common in children, the virus can affect anyone at any age. Healthy children usually recover quickly from chickenpox, but doctors consider chickenpox serious because it can cause other health issues.
What are the symptoms of chickenpox?
If your baby or child has chickenpox, they will have an itchy, red rash. Usually this starts with a handful of spots in one place — such as on the neck or torso. A few hours later more spots will appear (these formations of spots are called “crops”).
After a few days, the rash will have spread to many places and may cover most of the body. The rash will turn into blisters with fluid inside which, over time, will pop and form a crusty surface. There will usually be patches of rash at different stages, so some areas will have fresh red spots, some will have fluid filled blisters and some will be brown and crusty.
Your child may also feel unwell with a headache, sore throat or fever.
An infected child is most likely to show symptoms between 10 to 21 days after they catch the virus. Your child is still infectious until all of their blisters have crusted over.
Chickenpox in children is usually mild. Vaccination against chickenpox prevents most cases. Some children who have been previously vaccinated may have a very mild form of the illness with just a small number of spots.
How is chickenpox spread?
Chickenpox is highly contagious. It spreads quickly in places such as childcare facilities, playgrounds and at home.
The virus can be spread in 2 ways:
- Through contact with sneeze and cough droplets from an infected person.
- Through contact with fluid from an infected person’s chickenpox blisters.
An infected child is contagious for 1 to 2 days before the rash appears. They stay infectious until all of their blisters have scabbed over. This process may take 5 to 10 days.
How can I prevent the spread of chickenpox?
Chickenpox is highly contagious and spreads quickly, so it’s important to take care to limit its spread.
A child with chickenpox should stay at home and not go to school or childcare until their blisters are all dried.
It’s especially important to keep a contagious child away from pregnant women. Chickenpox can be serious for both the mother and baby.
Hand hygiene is important for all members of the household. Older children should be taught to cover their sneezes and coughs and place tissues straight into the rubbish bin.
Children with chickenpox shouldn’t share their food, drinking cups, utensils or toys.
What if I think my child has chickenpox?
If you think your child may have chickenpox, you should call your doctor immediately.
Do not go to the clinic since you don’t want to infect other people in the waiting room. Rather, call your doctor and they will tell you the safest way to see them.
How is chickenpox diagnosed?
Your doctor can usually diagnose chickenpox simply by looking at the rash.
They may also test the fluid from your child’s blisters for the varicella zoster virus.
How do I treat my child with chickenpox?
In most cases, a baby or child with chickenpox won’t need any medicine. But there are some treatments you can try.
- Paracetamol may help lower your child’s fever.
- Keep your child hydrated with water and other fluids.
- Soothing lotions and antihistamines can help with the itchiness.
Do not give your child aspirin or ibuprofen. This is really important — giving these medicines with chickenpox can cause rare but serious complications.
Speak with your child’s doctor if your child:
- has a more serious case of chickenpox
- has any pre-existing conditions,
Some children are given antiviral medication for chickenpox.
How can I protect my child from getting chickenpox?
The best protection against chickenpox is vaccination. This will stop most children from getting chickenpox.
A small number of immunised children will still get chickenpox, but it will be a milder illness with fewer blisters.
Immunisation will also help stop your child from getting shingles when they’re older.
The National Immunisation Program Schedule advises that all infants are vaccinated against chickenpox at 18 months of age. This is done using a combination vaccine which protects against measles, mumps, rubella and varicella (MMRV vaccine).
The National Immunisation Program offers free vaccinations for all infants who have or are eligible for a Medicare card.
To locate a health service where you can have your child vaccinated, visit our Service Finder tool.
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.
How serious is chickenpox?
While most children with chickenpox have mild symptoms, some cases can result in complications.
However, since vaccination for chickenpox became available in 2005, the number of children who are admitted to hospital has dropped.
Complications of chickenpox
People who are more likely to have a serious case of chickenpox are:
- pregnant women
- people with immune system disorders
- very young babies (less than one week old)
It’s important to try and stop your child spreading chickenpox to other people — especially if they are unvaccinated.
Resources and support
If you want to know more about chickenpox in babies and young children, speak with your doctor.
Are you pregnant or planning a pregnancy?
Learn more about how chickenpox during pregnancy can affect you and your baby.
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: June 2023