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What all parents need to know about chickenpox

The chickenpox vaccine is part of the National Immunisation Programme and is given in a combination vaccine with measles, mumps, and rubella.

What’s that spot my child’s got? It might be chickenpox!

Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). It affects about 4,000,000 adults and children globally every year. Chickenpox is characterised by fever and a widespread rash of small blisters (vesicles) that typically affects the chest, back, face, arms, and legs. Occasionally, the condition is more serious, affecting the internal organs (especially the lungs and liver).

Almost everyone will get only one round of chickenpox during their lives, if at all. Once you’ve healed, you’ll be immune to chickenpox for the rest of your life.

How is chickenpox spread?

Chickenpox is caused by a virus called varicella-zoster virus (VZV). This virus is a member of the herpes virus family. It typically takes about 14 days from the moment of exposure to the chickenpox virus until symptoms begin to manifest. This interval can be as short as 10 days or as long as 21 days.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Fever and headache typically begin 24 to 36 hours before a rash emerges in the form of pinkish raised bumps a few millimetres in diametre, generally on the chest or abdomen, with fewer bumps on the face and limbs. Within hours, the bumps morph into extremely itchy blisters filled with a clear fluid.  The rash typically lasts five or six days. It will then scab, dry, and fall off. By 10 days, the last dried-up scabs have fallen off.

As with other members of the herpes virus family, the chickenpox virus never completely leaves the host following infection. Rather than that, it remains dormant nerve cells, creating no evident sickness. This dormant or “latent” virus might be reactivated later due to a variety of factors such as stress, starvation, or advanced age. The reactivated virus will produce shingles (herpes zoster). Shingles is a cluster of painful blisters that typically affects the skin on the chest, back, or stomach. It is possible that it will involve the face.

Who is susceptible to chickenpox?

Chickenpox is one of the most frequent infectious disorders in children worldwide. Most instances occur before the age of ten years in nations with temperate climates, such as South Africa.

Chickenpox risk factors

Close touch or exposure to someone who has early chickenpox puts you at risk of infection. The greatest risk is related to sharing a household with someone who has chickenpox. Under these circumstances, nine out of ten people who have never had chickenpox will get the disease. Babies under one year of age are more susceptible to mild chickenpox, while teenagers and adults are more susceptible to severe chickenpox.

Those with weakened immune systems are more vulnerable to severe infections. Numerous types of cancer, leukaemia, lymphoma and HIV/AIDS are all examples of illnesses that impair the immune system. Certain medications, including large dosages of cortisone used to treat severe asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and kidney illness, may also impair the immune system.

What is the treatment for chickenpox?

Mild instances of chickenpox in children can be handled with basic symptom control treatments. To alleviate itching, apply cool, moist compresses. Calamine lotion may be administered to the rash but it should not be put to the child’s face. Cold, soft, and bland foods should be served, as chickenpox in the mouth can make drinking and eating difficult.

Occasionally, an antihistamine with sedative effects may be used to alleviate itching. Prevent subsequent skin infections by keeping your child’s fingernails clean and short, which will minimise the harm caused by scratching.

Important to note: Never give your child aspirin to treat a fever. Paracetamol is a safe medication for children to take.

How do you prevent chickenpox?

Historically, chickenpox was almost always inevitable. However, a vaccine that is both safe and effective is now available. It is routinely administered to children in a number of countries worldwide. The immunisation is 95% effective at preventing chickenpox infection and can be given safely to infants as young as 12 months. Consult your doctor if your child has not yet been vaccinated against chickenpox.  

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