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What is chicken pox?

Chicken pox is a common childhood viral illness.

What causes chicken pox?

It is caused by a virus called varicella.

What are the symptoms of chicken pox?

It starts with red bumps that become small, yellowish blisters affecting the whole body, including the mouth and genitals (which can be very painful). They then open before scabbing over. These are very itchy and can make your child miserable. Some children have just a few spots, others are covered in spots, all over. They may have a temperature, a cough and a runny nose. The incubation period (time from becoming infected to when symptoms first appear) is 10 to 21 days.

How did my child catch chicken pox?

Chickenpox is highly contagious, infecting up to 90 percent of people who encounter the disease. Transmission is through direct person to person contact, airborne droplet infection or through contact with infected articles such as clothing and bedding.

How is chicken pox treated?

Chickenpox rarely needs treatment. If itching is upsetting your child, you can ask at the chemist’s about creams or medicines to try. Paracetamol can be used to help your child feel better if they have a fever, and you should make sure they drink plenty of fluids.


Please avoid giving your child ibuprofen during chicken pox infection unless advised by a doctor.

Who needs treatment?

Children with immune system problems may need specific treatments, along with children who are taking long-term steroids (or within 3 months of stopping), or who are on chemotherapy (or within 6 months of stopping).

Newborn babies, under 7 days old, who are exposed to the disease or those who develop the rash under 4 weeks old may also need treatment.

You need to see a doctor or nurse today

When should I see a doctor?

If your child develops one of these, call 111 for advice:

  • Spots becoming more red, swollen or painful, redness appearing around the spots or yellow discharge from the skin – all signs of infected spots
  • New blisters or spots appearing after 7 days
  • Continues to have a fever of 38.0 degrees Celcius or more for more than 4 days or if a fever returns after it initially settles
  • Seems dehydrated (sunken eyes, drowsy, no urine passed in 12 hours)
  • Rash spreading to the eyes
  • Extreme shivering or complains of muscle pain
  • Is getting worse or if you are worried
  • Rashes or skin changes that do not look like chicken pox spots
You need urgent help

When should I call an ambulance?

If your child develops any of these, call 999 for urgent help:

  • Blue lips
  • Too breathless to talk, eat or drink
  • Pale, mottled and feels abnormally cold to touch
  • Extremely agitated, confused or very lethargic (difficult to wake)
  • Severe headache, neck stiffness or balance problems
  • Has a fit or seizure
  • Has a rash that does not disappear with pressure with the ‘glass test’ (please see our resource on fever for more information)

What tests will be done for my child?

Usually for simple chicken pox no tests are required unless your child has complications and needs to be seen by a doctor.

Can I send my child to school or nursery?

The HPA (Health Protection Agency) recommends that children with chicken pox should be kept away from school, nursery or childminders until all the spots have crusted over. This is because chicken pox can be a dangerous illness for some vulnerable children.

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Please note: this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s NHS FT. These details may not reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If this information has been translated into another language from English, efforts have been made to maintain accuracy, but there may still be some translation errors. If you are unsure about any of the guidance in this resource or have specific questions about how it relates to your child, always ask your healthcare professional for further advice.

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