Signs and symptoms: Everything you should know about chickenpox

Many children will contract chicken pox at some stage of their lives, so it is best to be prepared, but fear not. 

For most children, chickenpox is a mild illness which will leave your child feeling pretty miserable, itchy and irritable. While usually mild, chickenpox can occasionally lead to serious complications, so it is important to know what to look for. 

For many families on top of the stress of dealing with an ill child or children, the impact of chickenpox goes beyond the physical symptoms with research commissioned by MSD showing two in five parents said they had to take four to six days off work to tend to their sick child.    

The survey also found nine out of 10 Irish women who responded said they were the primary care-giver when their child falls ill compared to 28% of men; while 56% of women claim they are more likely to take days off when their children are ill instead of their partners. 

Chickenpox usually starts with one to two days of fever, aches and pains and feeling out of sorts. After that a spotty rash appears as scattered small, raised itchy, pink or red spots. These evolve into small blisters with first clear, and then opaque fluid. How many spots appear varies from person to person; some people hardly have any, while others are covered head to toe. The spots can even appear in the ears, eyelids, and inside the mouth. This sequence usually lasts five to ten days with the person making a full recovery.

Chickenpox is a highly infectious disease and it is easy to catch from someone who already has chickenpox. The infection is spread in the fluid found in chickenpox blisters and the droplets in the coughs or sneezes of someone with the infection. Chickenpox is contagious from one to two days before the rash appears until all the blisters have scabbed over. This takes about five days. 

There is no cure for chickenpox and the virus usually clears up by itself without any treatment. 

Your GP or pharmacist can advise about medicines that may help relieve itching or reduce pain and discomfort, but things will usually clear on their own after a few days. If complications develop, your doctor will decide on the appropriate treatment.

Paracetamol may be administered to bring some relief to the affected child and is the preferred painkiller for treating the symptoms of chickenpox. Aspirin and ibuprofen are not recommended for chickenpox. Doctors recommend the below advice to make your child feel better:

  • Don't scratch - It can cause skin infections or permanent scarring. If your child can't stop scratching, keep their fingernails short and put gloves or socks on their hands, especially at night.

  • Speak to your GP or pharmacist about using cooling creams or gels to relieve itching.

  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated. Try ice lollies if your child isn't drinking. A diet of soft, cold foods is best if chickenpox sores develop in the mouth.

Because chickenpox is highly contagious, you should try to prevent spreading it by avoiding contact with others, particularly those at higher risk of complications such as pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

Chickenpox is usually mild and, in most cases, once someone has had chickenpox their body will protect them from having it again. Occasionally there can be complications or secondary infections, 

It is important to be vigilant for complications or secondary infections – in a survey of parents only one in six were aware of chickenpox complications while 13% said their children were impacted.  

So, what complications should you beware of? Look out for swollen or painful skin, difficulty breathing or dehydration. If a fever persists more than a few days or settles and then returns, or if spots are associated with spreading redness of the skin or become painful, or there is pain and swelling of a joint or limb, further examination will be required. If you see any possible signs of complications, contact your doctor, practice nurse or pharmacist immediately.

If you need to book a doctor's appointment, tell the receptionist that your child has chickenpox. You may need to arrange a special appointment time to avoid infecting other patients. You should contact your doctor if any of the below occur.

  • You're not sure if it's chickenpox

  • You get chickenpox as an adult, as it can be more severe and last longer than in children

  • You're exposed to chickenpox while you're pregnant or breastfeeding

  • Your baby gets chickenpox when they're less than 4 weeks old

  • You're exposed to chickenpox and have a weakened immune system

  • You see signs of complications

  • The symptoms haven't started to improve after six days

While there is no worse feeling for a parent than seeing your child ill, the impacts of chickenpox go beyond the physical symptoms for parents who work outside the home. 

Almost two in five parents surveyed said they had to take between four and six days off work because of chickenpox. A quarter (23%) of parents said they had to take up to seven days. For many working parents, taking the time to mind a sick child places a financial burden on an already stressful time and as it’s a highly infectious disease, it all too easily passes from one child with chickenpox to another. 

For more information on chickenpox, talk to your doctor, practice nurse or pharmacist or visit



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