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Chickenpox (baby and infant)

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Chickenpox (baby and infant)


Immune system
Chickenpox (also known as varicella) is usually a mild infection caused by a virus that most children will catch between 2 and 8 years of age. The antibodies produced by the child's immune system to fight the infection usually provide life-long protection against the virus. It is extremely rare for a person to develop chickenpox more than once.
Chickenpox is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus called the varicella zoster virus. The virus is spread in tiny droplets of saliva or nasal secretions when a person infected with the virus coughs or sneezes. It takes between two to three weeks to develop the infection after being in contact with an infected person. The person who catches the disease will develop a red blistery rash and is himself or herself infectious for about 1 week, starting about 2 days before a rash develops and remaining infectious for a further 5 to 6 days until the last blister crusts over. Chickenpox is particularly common in winter and spring, and most children will have caught the disease by the time they reach 8 years of age.
If a child has chickenpox, he or she will feel unwell and have a high temperature and probably a headache. The child may also suffer from a cough and/or sore throat. A rash, made up of red watery blisters or spots called vesicles, appears on the face and scalp, spreading to the trunk and abdomen of the body and eventually to the limbs, the mouth, vagina or penis. Sometimes, the vesicles may be so limited that they are missed. Other times, the vesicles may be so numerous that they tend to merge into one another so that almost the whole of the body is covered. Three or four days after the vesicles appear they dry and scab over, only to be followed by new vesicles. The chickenpox spots are very itchy, but the spots will not scar unless scratched and broken.
Treatment is not usually necessary for chickenpox, but there are a number of ways to ease symptoms. Paracetamol can be used to lower temperature and ease pain. Aspirin must not be given to children under 16 years of age. Calamine lotion can be applied directly to the rash to reduce irritation, or an antihistamine can be taken in the form of tablets or a liquid if the itch is particularly severe. Bathing in cool water may also help ease discomfort. Scratch-mittens can be used in babies and infants to prevent them scratching and breaking the blisters.

Chickenpox vaccine
There is a chickenpox vaccine licensed in the UK but it is not part of the routine childhood vaccination programme. If the chickenpox vaccine was included in the childhood vaccination programme, it is feared that there would be a greater number of adults who would develop shingles later in life. This is because adults who have had chickenpox as a child are less likely to have shingles in later life if they have been exposed occasionally to the chickenpox virus. This is because the exposure acts to boost the person's natural antibody levels. (See separate article on Shingles)
When to consult your pharmacist
Talk to your pharmacist if you think that your child may have chickenpox. Your pharmacist will be able to confirm the illness.

Tell your pharmacist if you think you may be pregnant. Your pharmacist will reassure you that there is no risk to your baby if you have had chickenpox before, or will advise you to see your doctor straight away if you are not sure whether you have had chickenpox before.

If your child has a fever or if the rash is painful, your pharmacist will be able to recommend medicines to reduce your child's high temperature and ease pain. If the rash is causing a lot of discomfort the pharmacist will recommend calamine lotion to be applied directly to the rash or, depending on the age of your child, may recommend an antihistamine to take.

Always tell your pharmacist your child's age, and if your child is taking any other medicines or has any other illnesses.
When to consult your doctor
If you are pregnant and think you might have been in contact with someone who has chickenpox or shingles, and you are not sure if you have had chickenpox before you should see your doctor immediately. If you have had chickenpox before, then both you and the baby are protected.

If you have not had chickenpox before, there is a risk of the baby developing an abnormality if you catch chickenpox between the 13th and 20th week of your pregnancy. If you have not had chickenpox before or are not sure if you have had chickenpox, see your doctor immediately. Your doctor will test your blood for antibodies against the disease and give you an injection of varicella zoster immunoglobulin (antibodies) if you are not immune.

Chickenpox can be very dangerous for people with a lowered immune system as they may go on to develop pneumonia or encephalitis. If your child has recently received corticosteroids or chemotherapy, or has a disease of the immune system, such as leukaemia or HIV seek urgent medical advice if your child might have been in contact with someone with chickenpox or shingles.

Although it can be difficult to tell, if you think any of the chickenpox spots has become infected, see your doctor.

Reviewed on 8/11/2009