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Disease

Chickenpox

Page last updated on 22 November 2018

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. The same virus also causes herpes zoster (shingles). 

Chickenpox is highly contagious disease, which mostly affects children.  In healthy children the chickenpox disease is generally mild and does not last long, but it can cause serious illness or death in people who have lowered immunity.

Some of the people who may be at risk of complications from chickenpox include:

  • Infants less than 12 months of age
  • Adolescents and adults
  • Pregnant women
  • People with weakened immune systems due to illness or medications (e.g. cancer, HIV/AIDS, transplant recipients etc.)

Chickenpox is known for the itchy rash it causes. The rash may first show up on the face, chest and back, then spread to the rest of the body, including inside the mouth, eyelids or genital area. 

Vaccination may help prevent the spread of chickenpox.1 Speak to your doctor if you are unsure about you or your family’s vaccination status.

Key disease information

What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a disease caused by Varicella zoster, which is a virus that comes from the herpes family. It is a very contagious disease that is known by the itchy rash that may first show up on the face, chest, and back then spread to the rest of the body before forming blisters, which eventually turn into scabs.

The first time someone is infected with the virus it causes what we know as chickenpox. The typical symptoms include:

  • fever
  • itchy, blister-like rash
  • loss of appetite
  • tiredness

Although the disease usually lasts between 5-7 days, it can be a serious disease for some people, including babies, older adults, pregnant women and those with compromised immunity.

After the initial infection, the virus lays inactive in the nervous system and can turn later into shingles.

How do you catch chickenpox?

Chickenpox is highly contagious and can be spread by being in close contact with someone who has chickenpox.

  • Skin to skin contact with someone who has chickenpox, specifically from the fluid-filled blisters
  • By breathing in air droplets from a sneeze or cough
  • Infected surfaces that an ill person has touched

As chickenpox and shingles are caused by the same virus, you can also catch chickenpox from people with shingles if you touch or breathe in particles from shingles blisters.

A person with the chickenpox is generally contagious from the beginning of the illness (up to 2 days before the spots appear) until about 5 days after the first spots appear. So long as there are no new blisters or moist crusts on spots, the person will not be contagious even if there are still crusts on the skin. 

You should always practice good health habits to avoid spreading the illness, such as:

  • Avoid contact with people until the spots has healed and you feel better
  • Wash hands regularly
  • Cover your mouth when you cough
At what age should you have the chickenpox vaccine?

In Australia, the chickenpox vaccine is usually given to infants at 18 months of age. It is given along with the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine. However, it can be given from as early as 12 months of age if you and your doctor consider it necessary.

The chickenpox vaccine may also be recommended for certain individuals in 'high risk' jobs such as health care, child care and teaching, non-immune women before pregnancy and non-immune family members of people with immune system disorders.

Certain people should not be given the chickenpox vaccine. These include people whose immune system is poor, and women who are pregnant. For more information on vaccination, speak with your healthcare professional.

How do you treat chickenpox?

Chickenpox infection usually resolves without treatment. However, there are some ways to minimise the discomfort associated with the symptoms of infection, which may include:

  • Bed rest
  • Drinking extra fluids to stay hydrated
  • Lukewarm baths with baking soda or oatmeal added to the water
  • Creams or lotions to reduce the itching
  • Wearing mittens to prevent scratching
  • Avoiding salty or citrus foods.

Check with your healthcare professional before taking any medications, as some are not recommended for chickenpox.

Can you get chickenpox more than once?

Yes, it is possible, but extremely rare. Most people who have had chickenpox will never get it again.

After the initial infection, the virus lays dormant in the nervous system and more commonly manifests later as shingles.

Should I let my child catch chickenpox from their friends?

Chickenpox can be a serious disease, especially for infants. For pregnant women and people with poor immune systems (who have not been vaccinated) it can develop into a life-threatening disease. 

Chickenpox is very contagious and can be spread 1-2 days before the rash develops until all their chicken pox blisters have become scabs. Chickenpox can be a serious disease for some people, therefore it preferable to vaccinate against the disease rather than letting them catch the disease off others.

VaccineHub offers general information only. Please see a healthcare professional for medical advice

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Sources & Citations

  1. Australian Government, Department of Health. The Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th Edition. Varicella. Available at: http://www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/Handbook10-home~handbook10part4~handbook10-4-22 (accessed 16 April 2018).
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickenpox (varicella). Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/chickenpox/index.html (accessed 16 April 2018).
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickenpox (varicella) signs and symptoms. Available at:   https://www.cdc.gov/chickenpox/about/symptoms.html (accessed 16 April 2018).
  4. Victoria State Government. Better Health Channel. Chickenpox. Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/chickenpox (accessed 20 May 2018).
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickenpox (varicella) complications. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/chickenpox/about/complications.html (accessed 20 May 2018).
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickenpox (varicella) transmission. Available at:   https://www.cdc.gov/chickenpox/about/transmission.html (accessed 16 April 2018).
  7. The Children’s Hospital at Westmead. Chickenpox factsheet. Available at: https://www.schn.health.nsw.gov.au/files/factsheets/chickenpox-en.pdf (accessed 20 May 2018).
  8. NHS Choices. Can I get chickenpox more than once? Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/2562.aspx?CategoryID=200 (accessed 16 April 2018).

SPANZ.SAPAS.18.04.0139 - Date of preparation May 2018

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