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16 Aug 2007 8:01 AM -

With spring upon us, we in the medical world expect another ‘old friend’ to pop up in our surgeries – chickenpox. Chickenpox is a viral illness caused by the varicella virus. It is the same virus that can sometimes resurrect itself in older patients as shingles. The appearance of the classic fluid filled bubbles of chickenpox is usually preceded by a non-specific illness characterised by fever, headache, runny nose, cough and tiredness. The classic rash begins usually with one or two bubbles appearing on the torso and quickly spreads to the face, scalp, arms and legs. It can develop pretty much anywhere, including eyelids, inside the nose, mouth and vagina. The rash continues to spread for several days and is usually very itchy.

Over the coming days, the fluid filled bubbles burst, dry, scab up and usually heal without scarring, unless scratched or if they become infected by secondary bacteria such as staphylococcus. Some kids sail through chickenpox with minimal rash, while others are covered from head to toe.

The general rule is that chickenpox will show up between 10 and 21 days after the child has come in contact with the virus. The chickenpox virus is extremely contagious and patients are infectious from two days prior to the appearance of the rash until all blisters have dried up (usually 7 days after the rash appears). Affected children must stay away from day-care and school during this infectious period. The virus is easily spread by sneeze, nasal secretions or from the fluid from blisters. The infection is most common in children between the ages of 2 years and 10 years.

Most cases don’t need specific treatment, other than symptom control. Very occasionally, children with chickenpox may develop viral pneumonia and they can be predisposed to secondary bacterial infections of the skin, lungs and ears. Extremely rarely, children may develop an infection of the brain called viral encephalitis. Thankfully, chickenpox immunisation is safe, effective and free for children at age 18 months old. It can be given to children 12 months and older, especially if they have been exposed to chickenpox and are not immune.

Don’t hesitate to seek medical advice if your child develops a fever and a rash, especially if they seem very sick or if they appear to be deteriorating quickly. Parental gut feeling about the severity of their own child’s illness is ‘almost always’ accurate.


1. http://www.chw.edu.au/parents/factsheets/pdf/chickenpox.pdf

2. http://www.cyh.com.au/HealthTopics/