Chickenpox is a very contagious disease that often occurs in childhood and much less commonly in adulthood. It is very well-known because of the distinctive symptoms: red spots all over the body accompanied with a fever.

  1. Viral illness
  2. Causes spots and fever
  3. Most cases don’t require treatment

Chickenpox is mostly self-limiting but adults who get it are more likely to develop complications. Our video consultation service means you can speak to a doctor about chickenpox online if you are concerned.

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What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It develops very quickly, and only tends to last for a short amount of time (less than a week normally). The condition is characterised by small red spots, which develop into itchy blisters. Prior to this, someone may experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache and lethargy. 

Because we so often tend to get chickenpox as children, it’s thought that around 90% of people in the UK over the age of 15 are immune. It is possible to get a vaccination for chickenpox, but only people who are at risk of severe complications will normally be advised to have it.

What causes chickenpox?

Chickenpox is caused by the herpes zoster virus. This can be spread by direct or indirect physical contact between people, or through bodily fluids. Chickenpox becomes infectious one to two days before the rash develops, and will remain so until the blisters have started to heal over. 

Who gets chickenpox?

The majority of cases occur in children; once someone has had it, they’ll often develop an immunity to the virus and not be re-infected with the condition again. However, sometimes people can develop it for a second time (shingles) if their body doesn’t produce the antibodies required to fight it. 

When someone gets chickenpox in adulthood, they’re more likely to be at risk of complications. People who have a weaker than normal immune system or who are pregnant also have a higher risk.

The most common complications from chickenpox in adults are pneumonia, encephalitis (swelling in the brain) and hepatitis (liver inflammation). The majority of hospital admissions related to chickenpox are in adults.

The condition goes away by itself most of the time, but some people may benefit from receiving treatment in the form of aciclovir, an antiviral. Typically, this needs to be started within 24 hours of the rash developing to be most effective.

People who are concerned about chickenpox and would like to speak to a doctor can do so through our online video consultation service. You can book an appointment that best fits in with your schedule. Click ‘book appointment’ to get started.

Page last reviewed:  12/06/2020
Diagnosis and treatment

How is chickenpox diagnosed?

Chickenpox can be diagnosed fairly easily due to its very distinctive symptoms. It will usually cause nausea, headache and a loss of appetite, before the rash develops in clusters at various points on the body. Some people with chickenpox may experience a fever as well. The rash will then turn into blisters.

Will I need tests?

Not usually, because the symptoms are easy to distinguish. If someone develops chickenpox for a second time (which only occurs very rarely) then they may need a blood test to establish whether their immune system is producing antibodies to the virus or not.

What will a doctor normally advise?

The condition is caused by a virus which the body can usually get rid of by itself. In the majority of cases, they’ll advise staying at home and getting plenty of rest and hydration, so that the body is able to tackle the infection as quickly as possible. The condition is incredibly contagious, so they’ll also advise limiting contact with anyone who has not had chickenpox. 

Some people, such as those who are pregnant or who have a weakened immune system, may be more at risk of getting complications; in such cases, treatment may be recommended.

What treatments are there for chickenpox?

Adults who have been displaying symptoms for less than 24 hours or at risk groups may benefit from antiviral treatment, such as aciclovir. This helps to limit the activity of the virus, and enables the body to send it into remission.

In some cases, blisters can become infected. It’s also possible for some adults with chickenpox to develop pneumonia too. If you notice any serious symptoms developing, such as pus or particularly bad soreness around blisters, or difficulty breathing, seek medical attention right away.

Page last reviewed:  12/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How is chickenpox treated?

Treatment is not normally needed. A doctor will usually advise getting plenty of rest, and avoiding contact with others to limit the chances of passing the virus on. In some cases, such as in adults who are susceptible to illness, a course of antiviral treatment may help to expedite recovery and lessen the severity of symptoms.

What treatments are there?

Where treatment is recommended, aciclovir is the antiviral normally used. This is available as a tablet, and works by inhibiting the spread of the virus, so the immune system can send it into remission.

Are there side effects?

The most common side effects of aciclovir are nausea, headache and an upset stomach. Consult the leaflet provided for more detailed information.

Can I consult a doctor about chickenpox online?

Our private video consultation service means you can speak to a healthcare professional online if you are concerned about chickenpox, or think you may be developing symptoms. They will be able to help identify symptoms and give advice on how to manage them. Book an appointment at a time that suits you best.

Page last reviewed:  12/06/2020

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