What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a common illness caused by a virus (germ) called varicella zoster. People often get the virus as young children. A child with chickenpox can easily give the virus to other children. Almost all children catch chickenpox but few develop any serious problems.

Once you have had chickenpox, you will not catch it again from another person. Adults who get chickenpox may become very sick, so it's better to have chickenpox when you are a child.

When will my child get chickenpox?

Children can get chickenpox at any age. After being exposed to chickenpox, your child may appear to be fine for one to three weeks before feeling sick. Children can spread the virus from one day before they show signs of illness to about five days after a skin rash appears.

The virus is spread by:

  • Coming in contact with someone who has chickenpox
  • Breathing air from an infected person who sneezes or coughs
  • Coming in contact with fluids from an infected child's eyes, nose or mouth

How can I tell if my child has chickenpox?

Signs of chickenpox are easy to see. Health care providers often can look at a child's skin and know if he or she has chickenpox. Signs of chickenpox usually happen in the following order:

  1. Fever, feeling tired, headache
  2. A stomachache that lasts for one or two days
  3. A skin rash that is very itchy and looks like many small blisters
  4. Bumps filled with a liquid that looks like milky water
  5. Scabs after the blisters break
  6. Skin that looks blotchy; the spots fade away

How can I help my child get well?

Make sure your child gets plenty of rest and fluids. Chickenpox will go away on its own in a week or two. To help your child feel less itchy, you can:

  • Press a cool, moist rag on the rash.
  • Keep your child cool.
  • Encourage your child not to scratch. Trim the fingernails so he or she can't scratch.
  • Put a lotion with antihistamines on the rash. These lotions can be bought at the drugstore. If you don't know what to buy, ask the pharmacist for help.
  • Give your child an over-the-counter pill form of antihistamine. Benadryl is one example.
  • Give your child a daily bath or shower.

Don't give your child aspirin. Aspirin can harm children who have fevers. If you must give your child a pain killer, use Tylenol or another pain killer made with acetaminophen. If you are not sure what pain killer to use, ask your health care provider or pharmacist.

When can my child go back to school?

Your child can go back to school seven days after the rash appears. It is not necessary to wait for the scabs to heal.

Can my child get a shot to prevent chickenpox?

A vaccine for chickenpox is now available. Ask your health care provider about the vaccine.

Can adults get chickenpox?

When children get chickenpox, their bodies fight the illness by making a substance called antibodies. The antibodies fight the virus and help the body get well. These antibodies stay in the body throughout an adult's life. If an adult comes in contact with the virus, the antibodies are there to fight the germ.

Rarely, adults get chickenpox even though they've already had it. When the chickenpox virus in an adult becomes active again, the illness that results is called "shingles." People "catch" shingles from their own chickenpox virus. People with shingles can spread chickenpox to people who have not had chickenpox.

Shingles also looks like a rash of small bumps. It can be painful and can take longer to heal. Shingles will usually go away on its own in a week or two.

A shingles vaccine became available in 2006. A single dose is indicate for adults 60 years of age and older. The vaccine is only a preventive therapy and is not a treatment for those who have already developed shingles. Researchers did find, however, that the vaccine reduced the number of cases typically seen in older adults in half, and of the people who came down with shingles, the severity and number of complications were dramatically reduced.

People who should not get the vaccine include:

  • Those who have ever had a life-threatening allergic reaction to gelatin, the antibiotic neomycin, or other components of the shingles vaccine
  • Those with a weakened immune system due to HIV, AIDS, other diseases; drugs that weaken the immune system (e.,g., steroids, radiation or chemotherapy), cancer of the bone marrow or lymphatic system (such as leukemia or lymphoma)
  • Those who have active, untreated tuberculosis
  • Women who are pregnant or might be pregnant. Women should not become pregnant until months after getting the shingles vaccination.

What if my baby gets chickenpox?

If your newborn baby (up to age 3 months) gets chickenpox, let your health care provider know right away.

Where can I learn more?

Call your local public health department or contact the following:

National Immunization Program
Centers for Disease Control


© Copyright 1995-2017 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.

This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 8/20/2012...#4017