I’ve heard that chickenpox is very contagious. What is the best way to protect my daughter?
Chickenpox (also known as varicella) is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. The best way to protect your child from chickenpox is with a vaccination.
What are the symptoms?
- Chickenpox begins with a fever. Children may also lose their appetite, have aches and pains and have a headache.
- Within 1 to 2 days your child will get a rash that can be very itchy and uncomfortable.
- It starts with red spots that within 24 hours become fluid-filled blisters.
- The blisters occur on the entire body, including scalp and face and inside the mouth.
- Some people have only a few blisters. Others can have as many as 500.
- These blisters can dry and form scabs in 4 or 5 days.
- Altogether, chickenpox lasts between 7-10 days.
How is it spread?
Chickenpox spreads very easily. It can spread from two days before the rash appears but it is most contagious 12 to 24 hours before the rash appears, so it is easy to spread without knowing. It usually develops 10 to 21 days after contact with an infected person.
- The virus enters the body through the nose or mouth.
- It spreads from person to person through direct contact with the virus – by touching the blister or fluid from a blister. You can also get chickenpox if you touch the saliva of an infected person.
- It also can spread through the air if the infected person coughs or sneezes.
- A pregnant woman with chickenpox can pass it on to her unborn baby.
- Mothers with chickenpox can also give it to their newborn babies.
The only way to stop the spread of the virus from person to person is to stop infected people from sharing the same room or house, but this is not practical.
Chickenpox does not spread through indirect contact. That means it does not live on objects like sheets, counters or toys.
What are the complications?
Most children with chickenpox have a mild disease. However, sometimes the following can happen:
- Healthy children with chickenpox can have scars from the blisters.
- Healthy children can have serious complications such as infection of the skin (flesh-eating disease or necrotizing fasciitis), lungs (pneumonia), the brain (encephalitis) and other organs.
- Babies who get chickenpox from their mothers before birth can be born with birth defects.
- Chickenpox can be very severe or even life threatening to babies in the first month of life, to adults and to anyone who has a weakened immune system.
What is shingles?
The chickenpox virus does not leave the body after it causes chickenpox. It can flare up again, causing shingles, many years after chickenpox. It looks like chickenpox but it usually appears in one part of the body. Shingles is contagious but less contagious than chickenpox because it does not spread through the air.
- You can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles through contact with their saliva or skin rash.
- You cannot get shingles from someone with chickenpox or someone with shingles.
How to protect your child
You can protect your child from chickenpox with a vaccine. The chickenpox vaccine is very safe. With any vaccine, there may be some redness, swelling or pain at the place where the needle went into the arm. This is not dangerous and will only last a day or two. Some people might get a very mild case of chickenpox (less than 50 spots) 1 or 2 weeks after they get the vaccine.
The chickenpox vaccine can be given at the same time as or combined with the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine.
Children should receive two shots for chickenpox, the first when they are 12 to 18 months old and a second “booster” when they are 4 to 6 years old. In Quebec, the chickenpox vaccine is now given in combination with the MMR vaccine at 18 months; the second dose is at present not funded by the Public Health vaccination program.
Teens (13 years and older) who have never had chickenpox should get 2 shots, at least 4 weeks apart.
If your child is not yet vaccinated and comes into contact with another child or family member who has chickenpox, she may still be protected if she is vaccinated right away.
People who have had chickenpox after 1 year of age do not need to get the vaccine because they are immune. If they do get the vaccine, it is not dangerous
Although the chickenpox vaccine is very safe, it should not be given to:
- Babies less than 1 year old.
- People with weak immune systems and/or people who are taking drugs which suppress their immune system.
- Women who are trying to get pregnant. However, if you receive the vaccine before you know that you are pregnant, your baby will almost certainly be fine.
- People who are allergic to any of the components (ingredients) of the vaccine.
Dr. Shirley Blaichman is a general paediatrician in the Montreal area and a member of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s Public Education Committee.
For more information on your child’s growth and development, get answers from Canada’s paediatric experts www.caringforkids.cps.ca or www.soinsdenosenfants.cps.ca. You can also find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/caringforkids.cps.ca and on Twitter @CaringforKids or @soinsenfants.