Chickenpox and how to prevent it

Dr Rod Pearce, of the Australian Medical Association and immunisation spokesperson, speaks to motherInc. about chicken pox and the fact that this common disease can now be prevented by immunisation

First of all, what is chickenpox and how do you catch it?

Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It’s spread by an infected person coughing or sneezing on someone else or by contact with fluid from a sore of someone who has chickenpox or shingles. After being exposed to the virus, it can take three or four weeks for the first spots to appear.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include fever, runny nose, cough, feeling tired, and an itchy rash of small, red bumps that spreads from the face and trunk to other parts of the body. The bumps turn into blisters that dry up and crust over.

When is the patient infectious?

From about two days before the rash appears – during the coughing, runny nose stage – until all blisters have formed scabs or crusted over, usually within five days.

So that can mean at least a week away from childcare, school or work. In many cases, mum or dad may have to take time off work to look after a sick child, and then more likely than not any siblings who haven’t had chickenpox will also come down with it.

Can chickenpox be serious?

Chickenpox is usually a mild illness in healthy children, uncomfortable and itchy. But there can be complications ranging from scarring through to bacterial infections, pneumonia, brain damage, and on the rare occasion, death.

In Australia, about 1200 people end up in hospital and four to five people die every year from chickenpox.

Complications are more likely in adults and people with poor immunity, such as those on chemotherapy.

So how can you prevent chickenpox?

The good news is that chickenpox can now be prevented by immunisation. The vaccine is available through GPs and in most states, through council clinics, maternal and child health nurses and schools. It’s approved for use in children from 12 months of age. For those over 13 years of age, two doses are required, 1-2 months apart. The vaccine is available on prescription from a doctor and costs about $50 or $60.

The National Health and Medical Research Council specifically recommends vaccination for adolescents and adults who haven’t had chickenpox, including people who work closely with children, such as health-care workers, teachers and child-care workers. It also lists non-immune parents of young children, non-immune household contacts of people with lowered immunity, and non-immune women prior to pregnancy.

In fact, many doctors believe that women considering pregnancy should be tested to see if they’ve had chickenpox and if they haven’t had it, they should be vaccinated. Chickenpox in pregnancy can damage the baby and can even cause stillbirths.

If you happen to catch chickenpox before you’re vaccinated, what’s the treatment?

Basically, it’s bed and home rest until the spots are crusted over. Paracetamol can help the fever but avoid aspirin. Then there’s the itch. Wet compresses on the area may help, along with anti-itch products such as calamine lotion. It’s a good idea to keep children’s fingernails short or cover their hands with gloves to reduce the risk of the sores becoming infected and scarring due to scratching.

And lastly, what is the link between chickenpox and shingles?

Once you’ve had chickenpox, the virus stays in your body for life and may cause the very painful rash of shingles down the track. Shingles can occur at any age but it’s most common after 50. You cannot catch shingles, but you can get chickenpox from someone who has shingles.