Ask the expert: Can kids still get chicken pox?

Chickenpox1Q: A friend of mine is concerned because her child was exposed to chicken pox. Can babies and children still get chicken pox? A concerned parent

Thriving checked in with Dr. Susan Laster, a pediatrician in private practice in Brookline, MA, affiliated with Boston Children’s Hospital, to learn more about children and chicken pox.

Can children still get chicken pox?

Contrary to popular belief, kids can still get chicken pox. While it is usually not a serious illness, there can be some serious consequences, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all children be vaccinated against chicken pox at 12 months of age and again at least 3 months later.

Rarely, a vaccinated child will get chicken pox, although when that happens the disease is usually less serious.

My child wasn’t vaccinated and has been exposed to chicken pox. What should I do?

If your child has been exposed to someone with chicken pox, the best thing to do is to check with your pediatrician. In some situations, there are ways to prevent the likelihood of getting the illness after being exposed.

Some data suggest unvaccinated children 12 months of age or older who are exposed to chicken pox may be helped by getting the chicken pox vaccine within 3-5 days of the exposure in two possible ways:

  • It might lessen the likelihood of developing chicken pox.
  • If the child ends up getting chicken pox it will be a less severe case.

In other situations, anti-viral medication can prevent chicken pox after exposure to the virus.

If your baby has never been vaccinated and is exposed to chickenpox call your pediatrician to discuss prevention options. However, the chicken pox (varicella) vaccine and anti-viral medications are not indicated in infants younger than 12 months.chickenpox3

Can my child get chicken pox if she is vaccinated against the disease?

Vaccination is very important to stop the spread of this potentially serious illness.

If your child has been vaccinated with both doses it is much less likely for her to contract chicken pox. If she does get chicken pox it will likely be a mild case with a few pox.

Some people have worried that the chicken pox vaccine will wear off when children reach adulthood. This possibility has been monitored for many years; so far that is not the case. Childhood vaccination is very successful.

Is chicken pox contagious?

Chicken pox is highly contagious. The actual pox are contagious to touch.

In addition, chicken pox is spread through the air by small droplets from the patient’s nose and mouth. These droplets are contagious up to two days before the pox appear, so someone with chicken pox can spread it before she is aware she had it!

If your child has been around someone with chicken pox either two days before the rash appeared or any day during the rash, she could get chicken pox. But the illness won’t show up for 10 to 21 days, so parents have to look out for symptoms for quite a while.

Children with chicken pox are so contagious that they really need to stay home and away from other people until they are fully better, which is when all of their pox have crusted over.

What do pox look like?

Chicken pox usually starts with “pox” (small blister on a red base, or classically described as a dewdrop on a rose petal) in the “middle” of the body — neck or trunk.  The pox are itchy and increase day by day going from the center of the body out to the limbs.

The pox can end up everywhere on a child’s body. In some serious cases, pox may appear in the eyes and mouth, but typically they are only on the skin. Each day often brings a new crop of pox, and the earlier ones start to heal with a little scab. The whole process lasts five to seven days.

How can I comfort my child if she has chicken pox?

The pox are generally very itchy and can be managed with some basic medicines like calamine lotion or colloidal oatmeal baths. In some cases, giving the child oral diphenhydramine (like Benadryl) may relieve itchiness. Check with your doctor about dosing for this.chickenpox4

When should I call my child’s doctor?

In rare cases, the pox can become infected and lead to serious skin infections. If the red base is spreading, the pox are tender or there is a lot of swelling, call your child’s doctor. In very rare cases, people can get chicken pox pneumonia or spinal fluid infections, so call your child’s doctor if your child’s breathing becomes labored or if you have any concerns about your child’s mental status.