There are a number of viruses that seem to mainly affect children more than adults. Dr Joe Kosterich talks about chicken pox, how it affects a child, what it looks like, how long it lasts, complications, and what you can do about chicken pox.
Video: Chicken poxA lot of conditions in medicine have strange names and chickenpox, when you think about it, is probably one of them. There are a number of viruses that seem to mainly affect children more than adults and these collectively are called the childhood viruses. Most of them we don’t see as much of any more. Conditions like measles, German measles, mumps and chickenpox are not as common as they were in years gone by, and that is because of the advent of vaccination. Whooping cough is another one of these.
Chickenpox is still around. In Australia at least, a vaccination was introduced in the early part of the 2000s for children aged eighteen-months and older, so there are still a lot of older people who have not been vaccinated against chickenpox. Fortunately, in most cases it is not a particularly severe illness. You will hear some horror stories and some people do get complications – and we will touch on those later – but for most children, if they do get chickenpox it is what you call a viral type illness. In other words, the child will have a fever, sometimes a runny nose, cough, probably a bit grizzly, and a little bit off their food. In the early stages that will be no different from any other cold-type illness; there are no specific features to do with it. Some children may get a bit of a fever, others won’t, but there’s nothing specific about that.
The specific feature is when the spots come out. These spots will generally come out a few days after all the other symptoms start and, interestingly, often by the time the spots are coming out, those early cold symptoms are starting to clear up a little bit. The typical spots of chickenpox look like little blisters – they are generally clear, little, fluid-filled spots that appear most typically on the trunk (so that means mainly chest, abdomen and back). You can get them on the face and scalp, and they can spread to the arms and legs. Generally they are more across the centre of the body than out on the peripheries or limbs. The other hallmark feature of these spots is that they do tend to be quite itchy. Some children will get literally a handful of spots, other children will be covered from head to toe and, of course, there are all points in-between.
There’s no specific treatment or cure for chickenpox – it does run its course. In the vast majority of instances it runs a course of about five to twelve days and you’ll recover completely. There are some complications. Some children can get chest infections as a secondary effect and there is an extremely rare complication where it can cause a form of meningitis, or effect the surrounds of the brain. I must say that it is fortunately an exceedingly rare case – in 25 years I have never seen a case.
What can one do about chickenpox? To be honest, not very much – it will run its course. When your child does have chickenpox, it’s important to keep them out of school or kindergarten because it is contagious. In the “old days”, and by that I’m talking about as little as 20–30 years ago, people used to hold chickenpox parties when their kid had chickenpox because everybody wanted their kids to come around and get it so they would have it and it was done with. We don’t see as much of that these days. It will run its course and your child will get better.
In terms of treatment, simple things like paracetamol or other medications to help with the temperature if they have it, and any sort of anti-itch cream or lotion on the skin is good. It is important to discourage your children from scratching because if they scratch at the spots, they can in some instances leave marks. Adults can get chickenpox – it is not all that common – and if they do get chickenpox, or if you do get it as an adult, it generally tends to be a lot more miserable than as a child. Again, you will recover after a week to ten days or so. As we said at the top, these days all children at around about the age of eighteen-months will be vaccinated against chickenpox, but like all vaccines, it’s not 100% effective so some kids may still get it even if they have been vaccinated. In most instances if they do get it – and it’s not so common, but it does happens – it will be a milder case.
To sum up, chickenpox is not a pleasant illness but it’s not particularly fearsome. It’s fairly straightforward to prevent it these days with a vaccination and some fairly simple measures to help with the itching to make the child feel better whilst you’re waiting for them to get better.

More information

Chicken pox, shingles and postherpetic neuralgia For more information on chickenpox and related conditions, as well as some useful videos, see Chickenpox, Shingles and Postherpetic Neuralgia.

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