Chickenpox in babies is normally more of a nuisance than a cause for concern, but can sometimes cause complications. This page is about chickenpox in babies and infants – if you are looking for information on the effects of chickenpox in pregnant mothers and unborn babies, including neonatal chickenpox, please read our page on chickenpox and pregnancy.
What are the symptoms of chickenpox in babies?
Chickenpox may seem to appear at random – chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which has an incubation time of 10 to 21 days. This means your baby may only start showing the symptoms of chickenpox 10 to 21 days after being exposed to the virus, which is why chickenpox may come as a surprise.
An early sign of chickenpox in babies and infants is flu-like symptoms – it can be difficult to tell that your baby is going to develop chickenpox before the rash appears, as the first symptoms of chickenpox that your baby or infant may experience are very similar to the flu. These early symptoms may last for 1 to 2 days before the red spotty rash appears. In some cases, your baby won’t experience these early symptoms and may just develop a rash.
The early symptoms of chickenpox in babies and infants include:
- high temperature (fever)
- loss of appetite or difficulty feeding
- drowsiness, or sleeping for longer than normal
- Irritability or fussiness
- appearing to be generally unwell (malaise)
The chickenpox rash can appear suddenly – 1 to 2 days after developing the early flu-like symptoms, a red rash with groups of itchy, fluid-filled blisters usually develops. This rash normally starts as small red spots on the face, chest, or tummy but will quickly spread across the entire body – in some cases the rash can cover the entire body only 12 hours after the first spots have appeared. The blisters may also appear in places you might not expect, such as inside of their mouth, on the eyelids, and even the genital area. Don’t be worried if blisters pop up in these places – it is normal symptom of chickenpox.
How long will my baby have chickenpox?
Chickenpox normally lasts for 2 weeks – for 3 to 5 days after your baby first starts showing a spotty red rash, new spots can pop up in groups all over their body. Over time, usually 5 to 10 days, these spots will dry up and form scabs, and then fall off. New spots can appear while older spots are healing, so it may take around 2 weeks before all of the spots have dried up.
The first few days are the worst – chickenpox is at its itchiest before the blisters start to crust over and form scabs, so the first 3 to 5 days are normally the worst. This is because the blisters, when filled with liquid, release chemicals that make skin feel itchy. As the blisters heal and fall off, this chemical stops being released, reducing skin irritation.
Chickenpox is highly contagious – you can easily expose others to the virus if they come into close contact with your baby, especially those vulnerable to infection like other babies or infants, or those who are immunosuppressed. Chickenpox is at its most contagious in the first 2 to 5 days of infection, meaning that your baby can pass on chickenpox when they just have flu-like symptoms and no spots. Your baby will be contagious until all of the blisters have dried up and crust over, so you shouldn’t let your baby come into contact with others until their symptoms have cleared up.
Is chickenpox in babies dangerous?
Chickenpox in newborns can cause serious complications – newborn babies have very weak immune systems, as they haven’t had time to develop, so chickenpox can be a very serious infection. However, it is very uncommon for newborn babies to catch chickenpox as babies will usually have temporary immunity passed onto them from their mother. If your newborn shows signs of chickenpox, you should get in contact with your GP as soon as possible so a doctor can assess them.
Chickenpox in babies and infants usually passes without complications – for most healthy babies, the symptoms of chickenpox will be more of an annoyance than a serious concern. However, in some rare cases, such as when spots are scratched at and get infected, a baby or infant can experience serious health complications.
Complications of chickenpox in babies include:
- Bacterial infections of the skin or soft tissues
- Permanent scarring of the skin (usually only if spots are scratched)
- Inflammation of the brain (encephalitis)
- Inflammation of the tissues surrounding the brain and spine (meningitis)
- Inflammation of other parts of the body including kidneys, pancreas, joints, cerebellum (part of the brain which controls coordination/balance), testes, eyes, appendix
- Reye’s syndrome
Reye’s syndrome – Reye’s syndrome is a rare condition that can lead to serious after-effects such as brain swelling and damage. While the exact cause of Reye’s syndrome isn’t fully understood, the use of aspirin to treat viral infections (such as chickenpox) has been linked to the condition. Children and babies are at a higher risk of developing Reye’s syndrome, so if your baby or infant has chickenpox (or any other viral infection) then you should not give them aspirin.
What causes chickenpox in babies?
The chickenpox virus is highly contagious – the varicella-zoster virus, which is the virus that causes chickenpox, spreads easily through close contact. The virus lives in water droplets that are expelled when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and are also present in saliva and mucus. Babies and infants can also catch chickenpox by coming into contact with the fluid from a chickenpox blister.
Chickenpox can be transmitted during pregnancy – if a pregnant woman catches chickenpox after 36 weeks of pregnancy, in rare cases it is possible that the newborn baby could be infected and be born with chickenpox. For more information on the effects of chickenpox on pregnant mothers and unborn babies, read here.
How do I manage the symptoms of chickenpox in babies?
If your baby scratches at their spots, then they could potentially develop an infection if bacteria gets inside where the skin has been broken, or else they could permanently scar their skin. It can be difficult to prevent this from happening because babies can’t understand the consequences of scratching, and will just want relief from those itchy spots. However, there are a few things you can do to stop your baby from scratching:
Keep their nails clean and trimmed – making sure those nails are trimmed and clean is the first step you should take to prevent scratching. Longer nails are more likely to be able to break the skin, opening up the potential for an infection. The risk for infection is even higher if those nails are dirty, as they can get dirt and bacteria directly into the broken skin.
Cover up their hands with gloves or mittens – sometimes it may be necessary to put mittens on their hands if trimming your baby’s nails is proving difficult, as keeping them still when they’re itchy all over can be be very tricky, or if they’re still scratching at their spots after they’ve been trimmed. If you don’t have any mittens or gloves handy, then a pair of socks work just as well.
Calamine can help to reduce itchiness – calamine can have a cooling and soothing effect on skin, which can help to alleviate the irritation caused by chickenpox. Most pharmacies will sell calamine lotion, which can be dabbed directly onto the spots to provide relief from the urge to itch – and can also help to dry out the spots so they scab and fall off faster.
Oatmeal and bicarb baths – similar to calamine, oatmeal can protect the skin from irritation and soothe itchiness. The best type to use is colloidal oatmeal, which is finely ground and dissolves in hot water. If you can’t find any, you can also grind up regular porridge oats in a blender or food processor and that will work just as well. Putting a few spoons of bicarbonate of soda into warm water can also have a similar soothing effect. After the bath, remember to pat your baby down with a towel rather than rubbing them dry, as rubbing could cause irritation or even break their skin.
Make sure they get enough fluids – chickenpox can cause a high temperature in babies, which can cause them to lose fluids through sweating and heavier breathing. Making sure that your baby is drinking enough fluids, preferably water, will stop them from becoming dehydrated.
Painkillers and anti-inflammatory medications – painkillers (like paracetamol) can help to alleviate some of the symptoms caused by chickenpox, such as reducing skin irritation and fever. Some medications that can help to treat pain and fever in babies, like paracetamol are available in liquid form or soluble tablets (tablets that dissolve in water) to make it easier to give to your baby. Remember that some over the counter medications (like aspirin) are not suitable for babies and young children, so should not be used. If you are unsure, have a chat with a pharmacist or GP before you give anything to your baby.
Can my baby be vaccinated against chickenpox?
Babies who are 12 months or older can get the chickenpox vaccine – the chickenpox vaccine is not available routinely on the NHS, and is only given to those who are especially at-risk of chickenpox and its complications. If your baby isn’t able to get the chickenpox vaccine on the NHS but you still want to protect them, you can also get the chickenpox vaccine at a Superdrug Health Clinic.
Most newborn babies will inherit temporary immunity – mothers who have had chickenpox previously will pass on their immunity to their child while they are pregnant, which may last for a few weeks to a few months. It is estimated that around 95% of pregnant women in the UK will already have immunity to chickenpox, so it is rare for a newborn baby to develop chickenpox.
When would I need to take my baby to see a doctor?
If you’re not sure it’s chickenpox – as a number of illnesses can cause similar symptoms, if you’re not sure it’s chickenpox, you should take your baby to see a GP.
If your baby or infant is getting worse – if you’re concerned that your baby is getting worse, or you think they may be developing any of the complications, for example dehydration, you should speak to your GP.
If the skin looks infected – it can be hard to stop your baby scratching and if the blisters become red, hot, painful or leak pus, this could be due to a secondary skin infection which you would need to see a GP about.
Make sure you let the medical staff know it might be chickenpox before going in to your appointment – because chickenpox is so contagious your GP might ask you to come at particular time to prevent spreading it to other people.