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The primary school parents’ guide to chickenpox

The primary school parents’ guide to chickenpox
Chickenpox can spread through schools like wildfire, so how can you help your child, and how long do they need to stay off school?

Chickenpox is almost a childhood rite of passage – it’s not so much a question of if they’ll get it, but when.

It also means your child will need to stay home from school until they’re completely better.

Here, we answer your questions about how chickenpox might affect your primary school child.

Is it chickenpox?

The most obvious sign of chickenpox is the distinctive rash (look at NHS photos of the chickenpox rash to see exactly what to look for).

It starts with itchy red spots which can break out anywhere on your child’s body. These spots then turn into blisters filled with fluid, which could spread across the body or stay in one area.

The blisters often burst before scabbing over.

Your child might also have a fever of 38C or above, and aches and pains. They may lose their appetite and feel generally unwell.

When might your child catch chickenpox?

Nearly all children in the UK will have had chickenpox before the age of 10, but adults who didn’t have chickenpox as a child can also catch it – and it’s often more severe in adults.

You may have heard that there’s a ‘chickenpox season’ when children are more prone to picking up the virus. ‘It can occur at any time of the year, but cases usually peak from March to May,’ says a spokesperson for Public Health England (PHE).

How is chickenpox spread?

Chickenpox is a highly infectious illness. There are two ways in which it spreads:

  • By touching the blisters, saliva or snot of someone who’s infected, or by touching their clothes or bedding.
  • By being in the same room as someone who’s infectious: droplets from coughing and sneezing hang in the air and can be transmitted.

This explains why chickenpox often spreads quickly throughout schools, even with good hygiene.

In addition, children who are developing chickenpox are infectious around two days before the spots start to break out. This means that they can transmit the virus without you knowing.

If your child has been exposed to chickenpox, you might wonder if you should keep them at home in case they’ve picked up the virus and are infectious. ‘However, they shouldn’t be kept home at this stage,’ says PHE’s spokesperson. This is because they may not be incubating the virus, meaning they’re missing school unnecessarily.

How long should your child stay off school?

Your child should be kept off school or nursery until every blister has scabbed over. This is usually around five days after the first spot appears.

How to help a child with chickenpox

Chickenpox gets better on its own – because it’s a virus, it doesn’t respond to antibiotics.

Children can be very itchy and uncomfortable when they have chickenpox, as well as feeling under the weather.

You can help your child by:

  • Giving them plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. If your child won’t drink, try ice lollies.
  • Giving them children’s paracetamol, always following the instructions.
  • Cutting their nails to limit scratching.
  • Giving them antihistamine medicine to help with the itching: your pharmacist can advise you on what to give.
  • Using cooling creams or gels, like calamine lotion: again, your pharmacist can recommend the best treatment.
  • Giving them a cool bath – but make sure you pat their skin dry, rather than rubbing.
  • Dressing them in loose clothes.

‘Don’t use ibuprofen unless you’re advised to do so by your doctor, as it may cause serious skin infections,’ says PHE’s spokesperson.

When to see your GP

Most children with chickenpox won’t need to see a doctor. But you might need to seek medical advice if:

  • You’re not sure if it’s chickenpox.
  • Your child’s skin has become red, hot or painful around the blisters: this could mean they have an infection.
  • Your child is dehydrated.
  • You have concerns about your child, or they’re getting worse.

Because chickenpox is so infectious, it’s best to avoid taking them to the doctor’s surgery if possible, as they may infect other people in the waiting room.

Tell the receptionist if you think your child has chickenpox. You might be offered a telephone appointment or a special appointment time, or be asked to sit in a private waiting room.

You can also ring 111 for advice.

Can you get chickenpox more than once?

It’s unusual to get chickenpox more than once, as having the virus then gives you lifelong immunity.

It is possible, however, to catch chickenpox again. This is more likely if your child had it very mildly the first time.

If your child has had chickenpox, they could get shingles later in life.

‘When people have chickenpox, the virus remains in the body,’ says the PHE spokesperson. ‘This can then reactivate and cause shingles.’

If you have shingles and your child hasn’t had chickenpox, they could catch chickenpox from you – but you can’t catch shingles from someone who has chickenpox.

Should you go to a ‘chickenpox party?’

A ‘chickenpox party’ is a get-together where children who haven’t had chickenpox are invited to play with a child who has chickenpox.

The theory is that children will be exposed to chickenpox and develop it themselves.

Parents might be tempted to do this to ‘get chickenpox out of the way’ as it’s usually milder in young children; it also means it’s unlikely to crop up at an unexpected time and spoil plans like holidays.

However, PHE advises against chickenpox parties, or deliberately exposing your child to chickenpox.

‘Chickenpox parties are not recommended as transmission of the virus depends on certain factors such as the closeness and duration of contact, so there would be no guarantee that children would catch chickenpox and develop future protection,’ says its spokesperson.

‘In addition, if they did develop chickenpox, they could then transmit it to vulnerable people that they know, such as pregnant women and their unborn babies.’

Should your child have the chickenpox vaccine?

A vaccine is available for chickenpox, but while it’s routine in some countries, in the UK it’s not currently part of the standard childhood vaccination schedule.

It’s only offered on the NHS to people who are in close contact with someone who’s particularly vulnerable to chickenpox or related complications (for example, a child could be vaccinated if a parent was having chemotherapy).

The decision about whether all children should be vaccinated against chickenpox is under review, but it’s previously been dismissed as not cost-effective.

There’s also a risk that because most people wouldn’t catch chickenpox as children, unvaccinated children would be at greater risk of catching it in adulthood, when it’s often more severe and can cause serious complications.

If you do want your child to be vaccinated, some private GP practices, travel clinics and pharmacies offer the chickenpox vaccine. It’s typically around £70 per dose, with two doses needed, and is about 90% effective if your child has both injections.

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