By Dr Ellie Cannon
Highly contagious: The varicella-zoster virus, which causes chickenpox and shingles
With the milder spring weather come seasonal illnesses such as chickenpox and there are now outbreaks occurring across the country. Here our expert reveals the essential facts about the disease, including how porridge oats can stop the itch and why adults cannot develop shingles unless they've already had chickenpox.
Q: Is chickenpox dangerous?
A: Yes, for a child who has a weakened immune system or with other serious diseases. But in otherwise healthy youngsters, chickenpox is not normally dangerous. There are some possible complications, such as scarring of the skin and secondary infections of the skin or ears, for which antibiotics are needed. More problematic, although quite rare, complications include pneumonia, encephalitis and kidney problems.
Q: What is the incubation period?
A: It normally develops within two to three weeks of contact. People are contagious from a day or two before the rash starts until the rash has crusted over completely - usually a week after the first spot develops. It is highly infectious and is spread in the air, so you can catch it just by being in the same room as someone who has it.
Q: Can my child be vaccinated against it?
A: Yes, but it is not routinely available on the NHS. It is part of the immunisation schedule in other countries such as America and Canada. It is available in the UK in many private clinics.
Q: What is the treatment for otherwise healthy children?
A: Minimise the itch with calamine lotion or anti-itch medication (antihistamines). Taking a bath run through porridge oats - put them in a sock or a muslin bag so the water goes milky - also provides effective relief. Control temperature with paracetamol or ibuprofen, give plenty of fluids and allow the child to rest.
Q: How can I tell when a rash is chickenpox?
A: The rash is characteristic: the spots appear in clusters - called crops - and you get new crops over several days. The spots start red, then blister with fluid before going crusty and scabbing over. They are very itchy.
Q: Is it dangerous to be in contact with chickenpox while pregnant?
A: If you have had chickenpox then you are immune. If you haven't, you must consult your midwife straight away as it may be harmful to you and your pregnancy.
Q: Why do people say I should encourage my child to catch it?
A: It seems strange to willingly let your child develop an illness, but chickenpox is usually milder in children than adults, when the risk of serious complications is higher. Most of us will have chickenpox at some stage, so it makes sense to get it over with. For girls, it is better to have it as a child as then there is no chance of getting it while pregnant.
Q: If you get chickenpox as an adult, is that shingles?
A: No. If you get chickenpox for the first time as an adult it is the same illness with the same spots, although normally worse. In theory, you cannot get chickenpox twice. Your GP may offer you anti-viral medication. Shingles is a reactivation of your old chickenpox many years later, often after the age of 50. The virus lies dormant in a nerve, then starts to multiply again along the nerve causing a band of pain and a rash.