Events, features and things to do for families in New Hampshire
By Charles Cappetta, MD
Many parents are concerned about a common childhood illness – chickenpox – and how they should handle it when their child gets sick. Being informed about chickenpox can help parents make the right decisions to help their child.
Chickenpox is a contagious illness that is characterized by four types of lesions seen on the skin over a period of up to three weeks – a red spot, a pimple, a blister “the pox” and a scab. All four lesions go through this typical step-like progression and all need to be found on the skin at the same time to make the diagnosis complete. They can be extremely itchy as the sickness runs its course.
Chickenpox is caused by the varicella zoster virus, which can lie dormant in the body for years before presenting again in adulthood as the viral infection known as shingles.
Chickenpox can happen at any age but is most commonly seen in children younger than 12 years old and is very communicable even before the rash and pocks begin to show on the skin. Generally, a child who has been in contact with someone with chickenpox has the potential to show symptoms up to three weeks after the initial contact.
Before a rash begins to develop on the skin the child may exhibit flu-like symptoms such as a fever, sore throat or headache, and these symptoms can continue for the duration of the sickness. As the rash worsens, the pock marks will develop a very thin membrane and burst. Contact with the fluid inside the pocks can result in transmission of the virus, but it can also be transmitted like any other virus, through the air and on shared surfaces. It is recommended parents keep children out of school from the time they notice the rash until the marks have turned brown and scabbed over when the virus is no longer communicable.
Though usually just a nuisance illness, chickenpox can cause serious issues in those with weak immune systems, infants and older people. Rarely, these people will develop bacterial infections of the joints, lungs, and brain. It is recommended, therefore, that children older than 13 who have not had chickenpox receive the vaccine in two installments, 30 days apart.
Parents who wish to immunize their babies can get them the vaccine after they turn 1, with a booster shot prior to entering school at age 5. Vaccinations cannot fully protect a person from chickenpox, but those who do end up getting the virus after receiving vaccinations experience much milder symptoms than those who were not vaccinated.
It is recommended, due to the small chance of serious complications from the illness, that parents do not intentionally expose their children to someone with chickenpox. It is much safer to have controlled vaccinations done by a doctor who can monitor the child’s well-being afterward.
Scratching is a real temptation to a child who has the chickenpox. In some cases scratched pock marks can get infected and a doctor will have to prescribe antibacterial cream.
To prevent the itchiness and discomfort that leads to scratching, use cool water to bathe your child frequently. There are “oatmeal bath” products on the market that help with the itchiness, as well. Calamine lotion, the classic chickenpox itch cure, can and should be used on the sores, but should be kept away from the face and eyes.
Some children get sores in their mouths and/or on their genitals, so serve cool, low-salt foods and talk to a doctor about a pain relief cream for uncomfortable sores. To prevent your child from scratching himself in his sleep, cut his or her fingernails and place heavy socks or mittens over his or her hands.
Dr. Charles Cappetta, MD works at the Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Nashua. For more information, go to CHaDKids.org.