What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

The first signs of chickenpox are similar to the flu – before the tell-tale chickenpox rash appears, you may have mild flu-like symptoms and feel generally under the weather. These first signs normally appear 1 to 2 days before developing a full chickenpox rash.

The first signs of chickenpox include:

  • Muscle aches
  • High temperature (fever)
  • Tiredness or drowsiness (fatigue)
  • Feeling sick (nausea)
  • Feeling irritable
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headache

The main symptom of chickenpox is a red spotty rash – chickenpox is characterised by the signature red rash with itchy and fluid-filled red spots that appear in groups. Some people will only get a few spots, but others can develop a spotty rash that can appear all over the body. The rash normally starts on the chest and face, and then spreads to the rest of the body.

Chickenpox symptoms are more severe in adults than in children – chickenpox usually infects people during childhood, so most adults have become immune to the virus. However, adults who contract chickenpox are at a higher risk of developing health complications from an infection. For more specific information on how chickenpox affects adults, read our page on Chickenpox In Adults

How long does chickenpox last?

Chickenpox symptoms usually last for 1 to 2 weeks – for 3 to 5 days after first developing the initial spotty rash, new spots can appear across the body. Over the course of 5 to 10 days after the rash first appears, all of the red spots would usually dry out, crust over, and then fall off naturally.

You are contagious until your spots scab over – chickenpox is highly contagious, especially in the first 2 to 5 days of infection. This means that you are actually contagious before developing the spotty rash, while you are experiencing the initial flu-like symptoms. You will remain contagious until all of the red spots have dried out and formed scabs, so you should not return to school or work until your symptoms have cleared up.

What are the complications of chickenpox?

Whilst mostly people fully recover from chickenpox and all their symptoms resolve, uncommon and rare complications include:

  • Dehydration
  • Bacterial infections of the skin or soft tissues which can spread to the bloodstream
  • Permanent scarring of the skin (usually only if spots are severely scratched)
  • Pneumonia
  • Inflammation of the brain (encephalitis)
  • Inflammation of other parts of the body including kidneys, pancreas, joints, cerebellum (part of the brain which controls co-ordination/balance), testes, eyes, appendix
  • Reye's syndrome

Reye’s syndrome is more common in children and teenagers – Reye’s syndrome is a rare condition that is thought to be because of damage to the mitochondria that are needed to provide cells with energy. This can cause chemicals to build up and lead to serious after-effects such as brain swelling and damage. While the exact cause of Reye’s syndrome is still unknown, the use of aspirin to treat viral infections (such as chickenpox) has been linked to the condition. Because of this, if you or your child has chickenpox (or any other viral infection) then do not use aspirin to treat it.

Chickenpox spots can also leave scars – even if you don’t scratch at the itchy red spots, you may still experience scarring that looks like dark spots or marks on your skin. These scars may fade over time, usually over the course of 6 to 12 months, though some people may experience permanent scarring.

How does chickenpox spread?

Chickenpox is highly contagious – chickenpox is spreads easily, and can be caught just by being in close contact with someone who is infected. The virus lives in water droplets, and can be spread when an infected person breathes them out, sneezes, or coughs. You can also catch chickenpox by coming into contact with the fluid-filled blisters, or items that have been contaminated with infected water droplets or the fluid from the blisters.

You can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles – the varicella-zoster virus, which causes chickenpox, is the same virus that can reactivate to  cause shingles. While shingles itself is not contagious, someone with shingles can spread chickenpox to people who are not already immune.

What should I do about chickenpox symptoms?

Don’t scratch the itch – while it can be difficult to resist the urge, scratching chickenpox spots can cause permanent scarring and increases the risk that they will become infected. This can be especially challenging for children with chickenpox. Putting gloves or mittens on their hands will stop them scratching at night, and trimming and cleaning their fingernails will make it harder to actually break the scabs if they do scratch.

Calamine lotion can help reduce itchiness – calamine lotion can have  a cooling and soothing effect on skin, and can be bought at most pharmacies. Applying the lotion directly to the spots can provide relief from the urge to scratch the spots, and can also help dry them up. Stronger medications, such as chlorpheniramine, are available for severe cases over the counter from pharmacists, or on prescription from a GP.

Stay hydrated – chickenpox can come with a fever, which can cause dehydration because you sweat more and breathe faster to try and regulate your body temperature. Making sure that you drink enough fluids, preferably water, will stop you from becoming dehydrated.

Paracetamol can help to relieve pain – mild painkillers like paracetamol can be used if you, or your child, are in pain or have a fever. It is best to avoid ibuprofen because of a small chance of causing more severe skin reactions if taken while you have chickenpox.

At-risk groups may be prescribed antiviral medication – those who are particularly vulnerable to chickenpox and its complications, such as newborns or pregnant women, may be given an antiviral medication called aciclovir. This treatment cannot cure chickenpox, but it can make the symptoms less severe.

How can I prevent chickenpox symptoms?

Get vaccinated – the only way to effectively protect yourself against chickenpox, apart from developing immunity from a previous chickenpox infection, is to get vaccinated. The chickenpox vaccine is not routinely available on the NHS, but is available at any Superdrug Health Clinic.