Te koroputa hei Chickenpox

Chickenpox (varicella) is a highly contagious disease most common in tamariki. It causes itchy, fluid-filled blisters on the skin. Infections are normally mild, but chickenpox can make some people very sick.

Symptoms of chickenpox

Symptoms of chickenpox usually start 10 to 21 days after being exposed.

The most common symptom is small, itchy blisters like a rash on the skin. Other symptoms of chickenpox are:

  • tiredness
  • fever
  • general aches and pains.

Complications are not common in healthy people who get the disease. Chickenpox symptoms usually last for 1 to 2 weeks.

Once you have had chickenpox, it is unusual to get it again — your body can develop immunity after you have it. But, the virus can become active later in life and cause shingles.

Who to contact for medical advice

If you have symptoms that you are worried about:

  • contact your usual doctor or healthcare provider
  • call Healthline for free advice 0800 611 116
  • call 111 for an ambulance in an emergency.

Complications from chickenpox

Chickenpox can cause complications for:

  • teens and adults
  • pregnant people and their unborn pēpi
  • people with weakened immune systems
  • people with kidney or liver problems.

Chickenpox in pregnancy

Chickenpox during pregnancy can cause malformation, poor growth of your pēpi or stillbirth.

If you think you have been exposed to someone with chickenpox, contact your midwife or doctor who can arrange a blood test to check whether you are immune.

If you are not immune your healthcare provider may give you an injection that can prevent chickenpox or make it less severe.

Chickenpox in people with weakened immune systems

If you think you have been exposed to someone with chickenpox contact your healthcare provider. They may give you an injection that can prevent chickenpox or make it less severe.

Serious complications from chickenpox

Very rarely, chickenpox can lead to serious complications. Chest or lung infection (pneumonia) is the most common. 

Other complcications are rare, but could include:

  • problems with the kidneys or joints
  • irritation or swelling in the brain (such as encephalitis)
  • death.

About 1 person each year dies of chickenpox. This is usually an adult.

Infected blisters

Tamariki often scratch the blisters. This can make some of them infected. Take your tamariki to your healthcare provider if you think their blisters are infected. They might need antibiotics.

The blisters can leave mild scarring in some skin types.

Shingles after chickenpox

After you have chickenpox, the virus stays dormant (inactive) in your body. It can become active later in life and cause pain and blisters. This is called shingles. It can cause complications and is prevented by immunisation.

Shingles (internal link)

When to get immediate medical advice

If you or a whānau member has any of the following symptoms with chickenpox, call 111 and ask for an ambulance:

  • high fever
  • severe headache
  • sensitivity to light (light hurts your eyes)
  • nausea and vomiting
  • stiff neck
  • confusion
  • sleepiness, difficulty waking or unconsciousness
  • fits (convulsions or seizures).

How chickenpox spreads

Chickenpox spreads through the air by sneezes or coughs, by touching the chickenpox blisters of an infected person, or by having contact with shingles blisters.

People with chickenpox are contagious 1 to 2 days before the blisters appear.

Diagnosing chickenpox

Healthcare providers will usually be able to diagnose you with chickenpox by looking at your rash.

Chickenpox can also be confirmed with lab tests, including blood tests or a swab of the fluid from 1 of the blisters. This is usually not needed.

Staying home

Chickenpox is contagious from 1 to 2 days before the blisters appear. Avoid close contact with other people until you have stopped getting new blisters and all blisters have dried.

You should stay home from work and keep tamariki home from school and early childhood education centres.

Other ways to stop chickenpox spreading

The chickenpox virus spreads through the air by infected people when they sneeze or cough.

  • Always cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Use tissues and throw them away or cough or sneeze into your elbow — not your hands.
  • Always wash your hands after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose.

Chickenpox can also spread through touching the blisters and then touching objects or other people.

  • Wash your hands often, especially if you are the caregiver of tamariki with chickenpox — and make sure they do the same.
  • Remind tamariki to avoid scratching the blisters.

Self care at home

Most people with chickenpox do not need to see their healthcare provider.

These are some ways you can help ease the symptoms.

  • Take a lukewarm bath every 3 to 4 hours for the first few days. Add 4 tablespoons of baking soda, cornstarch or oatmeal to the water but do not use soap as it can dry out skin.
  • Apply a moisturising or emollient cream to help relieve the itching. Calamine lotion is not recommended as it may dry out the skin.
  • Put a towel-covered ice pack or cool, moist washcloth on itchy areas for 20 to 30 minutes. Do not share the towel or washcloth with anyone else.
  • If the itching is severe or is making it hard to sleep, take an antihistamine.
  • Trim your fingernails and wash your hands often to prevent the rash from becoming infected if you scratch it.
  • Take pain relief such as paracetamol for headache, fever or general aches and pains according to the instruction on the bottle.

Preventing chickenpox

The best defence against chickenpox is immunisation. Immunisation provides long term but probably not lifelong immunity to chickenpox.

The chickenpox vaccine is free for some tamariki and those at high risk of chickenpox. 

For everyone else, chickenpox immunisation is available at a cost. Talk to your healthcare provider if you would like the chickenpox vaccine for you or your tamariki.

You should not get immunised against chickenpox if you:

  • are pregnant
  • have a severe allergy to the vaccine or its ingredients
  • have an immune deficiency condition.

Chickenpox (varicella) vaccine (internal link)