Are you Chickenpox aware?

WHAT IS CHICKENPOX?

This website is produced and funded by MSD. It is intended to provide general educational information and does not take the place of professional medical advice.

Toy rabbit with chickenpox

Chickenpox: The Basics1

The medical name for chickenpox is varicella because it is caused by the varicella zoster (VZ) virus. It’s a highly infectious disease, which means it’s easy to catch from someone who already has chickenpox.

The good news is that, in most cases, once you’ve had it, your body is able to protect you from catching it again.

of adults in the UK are immune to chickenpox because they had the disease as a child.2

Spotting Chickenpox1

Other diseases can cause rashes, so you shouldn’t simply assume it’s chickenpox.

Girl having temperature taken
Fever
The illness usually starts with one to two days of fever, aches and pains and feeling out of sorts.
Child with chickenpox rash
Rash
Then, an itchy, spotty rash develops, turning from spots to blisters to scabs and crusts. How many spots appear varies from person to person; some people hardly have any, while others are covered head to toe.
A chickenpox scab
Infection
The infection is spread in the fluid found in chickenpox blisters and the droplets in the coughs or sneezes of someone with the infection.

Chickenpox is contagious from one to two days before the rash appears until all the blisters have scabbed over. This takes about five days.

Managing spots and itching1

In healthy children, chickenpox will not usually require medical treatment. Your pharmacist can advise about medicines that may help relieve itching or reduce pain and discomfort. If complications develop, your doctor will decide on the appropriate treatment.

If you need to book a doctor’s appointment, tell the receptionist that your child has chickenpox. You may need to arrange a special appointment time to avoid infecting other patients.

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Avoid using ibuprofen for chickenpox unless advised to do so by your doctor. You also shouldn’t give aspirin to children under 16.

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Don’t scratch! It can cause skin infections or permanent scarring. If your child can’t stop scratching, keep their fingernails short and put gloves or socks on their hands, especially at night.

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Speak to your pharmacist about using cooling creams or gels to relieve itching.

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Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. Try ice lollies if your child isn’t drinking. A diet of soft, cold foods is best if chickenpox sores develop in the mouth.

More information about chickenpox can be found via the NHS website*:

Click here to Learn more

*This link will direct you to a third-party website. MSD does not endorse or recommend any content on this site but signposts this as a reputable source for additional information.

Don't pass it on!1

Because chickenpox is highly contagious, you should try to prevent spreading it by avoiding contact with others, particularly those at higher risk of complications, such as pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

That means no school and no nursery until the last blister has scabbed over.

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Girl waving her arm under 5 days at home icon

A little one with chickenpox will need around 5 days at home so you may have to take time off work to look after them.1

If you are due to take a flight, you may not be allowed to fly until the last blister has scabbed over, so check with the airline. If you are not contagious but the rash is still present, you may need a doctor’s certificate.

A child holding her forehead taking her temperature

Be aware of highrisk groups1-2

Chickenpox is usually mild, but occasionally it can lead to serious complications, especially in adults, pregnant women, newborn babies and people with weakened immune systems.

People in these high-risk groups are more likely to experience complications such as secondary infections. It's rare to get chickenpox when you're pregnant, and the chance of it causing complications is low. If you do get chickenpox when you're pregnant, there's a small risk of your baby being very ill when it's born. Speak to a GP if you have not had chickenpox and have been near someone with it.

It’s important to seek medical advice if you are in one of these groups and think you may have chickenpox.

Possible complications

If you develop a skin or lung infection, you will need treatment with antibiotics. In severe cases, you may need to be hospitalised.

For people at high risk of complications, doctors sometimes prescribe medications to shorten the duration of the infection and reduce the risk of complications. These should be given within 24 hours of the first appearance of the rash

Animated image of a child with a chickenpox rash

Infections caused by harmful bacteria getting into the skin, making it red, swollen and painful


Animated image of a child coughing

Lung infections (pneumonia), which can cause a persistent cough, breathing difficulties and chest pain


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Problems during pregnancy, including the infection spreading to the unborn baby

There may not always be signs of chickenpox complications. However, you should look out for swollen or painful skin, difficulty breathing or dehydration.

If you see any possible signs of complications, contact your GP or NHS 111 immediately.

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Stock image of Healthcare Professionals

When to contact your GP1?

Chickenpox is usually mild and clears up in about a week. However, some people can become seriously ill and need to see a doctor.

Contact your GP or NHS 111 if:

  • You’re not sure if it’s chickenpox
  • You get chickenpox as an adult
  • You’re exposed to chickenpox while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding
  • You think your newborn baby has chickenpox
  • You’re exposed to chickenpox and have a weakened immune system
  • You see signs of complications
  • The symptoms haven’t started to improve after six days

You should also get advice if you are originally from a country near the equator and have been exposed to chickenpox, as you may need treatment to stop you becoming seriously ill.

Child and father taking her temperature

Parents* miss on average 4.1 days of work per child with chickenpox4

Although most children recover well from chickenpox, it can have a lasting impact:

Plaster icon with red circleScarring
Plane icon with red circleMissed holidays & events
Calendar icon with red circleTime off work

These disruptions to family life are made worse when siblings pass the disease to one another.

*Parents of children who had experienced chickenpox

Healthcare professional with mother and child

Preventing chickenpox1

For most children, chickenpox is mild and can be treated at home.1 Chickenpox may also be prevented with a vaccination.4

Chickenpox vaccination is not part of the routine childhood vaccination schedule in the UK. It is currently offered on the NHS to people who are in close contact with someone who is particularly vulnerable to chickenpox or its complications. The vaccination may not be suitable for people with certain medical conditions.4

Below are some answers to the most commonly asked questions about chickenpox:

Chickenpox is highly contagious. You can catch chickenpox by being in the same room as someone with the disease, or by touching clothes or bedding that has fluid from the blisters on it.1

The rash usually takes between 1 and 3 weeks to appear after being exposed to chickenpox.1

Chickenpox is contagious from one to two days before the rash appears, and until all the blisters have scabbed over. This takes about five days, and means no school and no nursery during this time.1,2

Chickenpox is contagious from one to two days before the rash appears, and until all the blisters have scabbed over. This takes about five days, and means no school and no nursery during this time. Parents may need to take time off work to look after children at home.1,2

Chickenpox is contagious from one to two days before the rash appears, and until all the blisters have scabbed over. If you are due to take a flight, you may not be allowed to fly until the last blister has scabbed over, so check with the airline.1,2 If you are not contagious but the rash is still present, you may need a doctor’s certificate. It may also be worth checking if your travel insurance company will cover any costs incurred if you or a family member contracts chickenpox abroad and is unable to fly home at the expected time.

Chickenpox is highly contagious, which means it’s easy to catch from someone who already has it.1 This puts siblings at risk of infection if they have not already had chickenpox.

You cannot get shingles from someone with chickenpox. When people get chickenpox, the virus remains in the body. It can be reactivated later and cause shingles if someone's immune system is lowered. This can be because of stress, certain conditions, or treatments like chemotherapy.1

You can get chickenpox from someone with shingles if you have not had chickenpox before.1

Chickenpox vaccination is not part of the routine childhood vaccination schedule but is provided on the NHS to certain individuals to help protect high-risk groups from chickenpox. The vaccine may not be suitable for people with certain medical conditions.4