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When Your Child Has Chickenpox 

Closeup of skin with rash.
Chickenpox causes an itchy rash that appears as bumps and blisters, which can spread all over the body.

Chickenpox is an illness that can easily spread from person to person (contagious). It causes an itchy skin rash that appears as bumps and blisters. The rash can spread all over the body. Though chickenpox can cause some discomfort, most children recover with no lasting effects. In the past, chickenpox was very common and could not be prevented. A vaccine is recommended to protect your child from getting it. It's given in 2 doses: at ages 12 to 15 months, and ages 4 to 6 years If your child has not received the vaccine, ask your child’s healthcare provider for more information.

What causes chickenpox?

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus.

What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

Symptoms can appear 10 to 21 days after exposure. The following symptoms usually occur before the rash:

  • Fever

  • Tiredness

  • Muscle aches

  • Loss of appetite

The rash usually occurs on the face, chest, and back. It starts as small, red bumps that turn into blisters. These blisters then crust and scab over.

How is chickenpox spread?

Chickenpox can be spread in the following ways:

  • Through direct contact with the rash on an infected person.

  • Through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

  • Through direct contact with the rash on a person who has shingles. (This is an illness caused by the chickenpox virus. It affects adults who have had chickenpox or picked up the virus in the past.)

 How is chickenpox diagnosed?

  • If you suspect that your child has chickenpox, let your healthcare provider know before your child’s appointment. This is to reduce the risk of spreading it to other children at the provider's office.

  • Chickenpox is usually diagnosed by how the rash looks. Your healthcare provider will examine your child, ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. A blood test may be requested to confirm diagnosis.

How is chickenpox treated?

  • Chickenpox generally lasts about 7 to 10 days.

  • Your child is contagious for 1 to 2 days before the rash starts. He or she should not attend school or daycare until the blisters caused by the rash have crusted over.

  • In some cases, especially if your child has a weak immune system, your provider may advise an antiviral prescription medicine. This medicine works best if taken within 24 hours after the rash starts.

  • You can do the following at home to relieve your child’s symptoms:

    •  Give your child over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to treat pain and fever. Don't give aspirin to a child with a fever. This can put your child at risk of a serious illness called Reye syndrome. Don't give ibuprofen to an infant who is 6 months of age or younger.

    • Give your child OTC antihistamine medicine to ease itching. 

    • Apply calamine lotion to the rash to relieve itching. Before and after each application, wash your hands with warm water and soap.

    • Give your child an oatmeal bath. This can soothe the skin and relieve itching. Some oatmeal mixes can leave an oily film in the tub. To prevent falls, make sure to clean the tub well before the next person uses it.

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your child's healthcare provider if your otherwise healthy child has any of the following:

  • Symptoms that don't improve within  7 days of starting treatment

  • A fever (see Fever and children, below)

  • Rash spreads near the eyes

  • Rash shows signs of infection (pus or drainage)

Fever and children

Use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Don’t use a mercury thermometer. There are different kinds of digital thermometers. They include ones for the mouth, ear, forehead (temporal), rectum, or armpit. Ear temperatures aren’t accurate before 6 months of age. Don’t take an oral temperature until your child is at least 4 years old.

Use a rectal thermometer with care. It may accidentally poke a hole in the rectum. It may pass on germs from the stool. Follow the product maker’s directions for correct use. If you don’t feel OK using a rectal thermometer, use another type. When you talk to your child’s healthcare provider, tell him or her which type you used.

Below are guidelines to know if your child has a fever. Your child’s healthcare provider may give you different numbers for your child.

A baby under 3 months old:

  • First, ask your child’s healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.

  • Rectal or forehead: 100.4°F (38°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 99°F (37.2°C) or higher

A child age 3 months to 36 months (3 years):

  • Rectal, forehead, or ear: 102°F (38.9°C) or higher

  • Armpit: 101°F (38.3°C) or higher

Call the healthcare provider in these cases:

  • Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher

  • Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under age 2

  • Fever that lasts for 3 days in a child age 2 or older

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: John Hanrahan MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2020
© 2000-2020 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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