CHICKENPOX – THE ILLNESS
Chickenpox, also known as varicella, is a childhood infectious illness. Currently in the UK there is no vaccine but it is being pushed at private clinics, is used for healthcare workers and there are plans to introduce an MMRV vaccine for children (measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox). In the USA, the varicella vaccine is part of the vaccination programme.
Chickenpox is a mild illness which 90% of children will have caught by the time they are 15. If it is caught in childhood, then the child avoids the more serious complications.
According to Bupa Healthcare, ‘chickenpox is almost always harmless… Most children catch chickenpox in the pre-school or early school years and it is almost always a relatively minor illness… Except in rare cases, chickenpox does not strike twice – once you’ve had it, you are immune for life.’ (Bupa Healthcare factsheet).
The illness has an incubation period of about 2 weeks. Preceding the rash, there may be headache, fever, sore throat, backache, and general tiredness. Then the rash develops, starting on the face and scalp and spreading to the torso. These look like pimples, which fill with pus. They can be extremely itchy for the child. After a week or two, they will scab over and heal.
Possible Complications Of Chickenpox
Very rarely, complications arise as a result of chickenpox. These include infections of the spots (where the skin becomes red and inflamed) and ear infections. The homeopathic remedy Sulphur can be used if the spots are weeping and pulsatilla can be used for ear infections, along with arnica for pain relief. However, please consult your homeopath as remedies are tailored to each individual child, his symptoms and his emotions. Antibiotics may be offered for cases of infection, although if your child has an ear infection, evidence suggests that antibiotics are not that effective in treating it.
According to the medical journal, Pediatrics, treating ear infections with antibiotics had no benefit compared with doing nothing at all (i.e. you might as well do nothing at all!). 22 children who had ear infections were divided into two groups. One group had antibiotics and the other group had nothing. There was no difference in the number of days ill, severity of illness or in the clinical examination of the ear drum after the illness, in both the groups. The study concluded that antibiotic use is not necessary or beneficial in the treatment of non-severe ear infections. (McCormick DP, et al. Nonsevere acute otitis media: a clinical trial comparing outcomes of watchful waiting versus immediate antibiotic treatment. Pediatrics June 2005; 115(6):1455.).
According to NHS Direct, other severe complications are rare in children. In adults, up to 14% can develop pneumonia as a result of chickenpox. If a woman catches chickenpox while she is pregnant, it usually doesn’t do her baby any harm, however, if she has caught the virus within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, there is a small risk of foetal varicella syndrome in which a baby may have eye defects, limb defects or brain damage. This risk is less than 1% in the first 12 weeks, and between 1 and 2% after 13 weeks. If she catches the virus after 37 weeks, her baby may be born with chickenpox.
Chickenpox can be more serious in newborn babies up to four weeks old so if your baby has it at this age, you should see your doctor. Sometimes they will just monitor the baby regularly to make sure that he is not developing complications . There is also an anti-viral drug available called acyclovir which is supposed to limit any side effects and is prescribed for newborns and those with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients. Breast feeding is also important and may prevent serious complications (see ‘treatment’ section).
If you are less than 37 weeks pregnant and have been exposed to chickenpox but you already had the illness as a child, there is no risk to your baby. You will have natural immunity which will prevent your baby from getting foetal varicella syndrome.
TREATMENT OF CHICKENPOX
I have nursed all four of my daughters through chickenpox, and my first three daughters had it all at the same time. The two eldest ones did not even feel unwell with it and were still eating meals and running around playing. They got irritated by the itchy spots and would wake in the night, scratching, but that was the extent of the illness. My fourth daughter, Alicia, got it a few years later, and like her sisters, didn’t feel ill. She proudly showed off her spots to everyone and told me off for calling her ‘spotty dotty’.
I didn’t actually give any specific treatment other than vitamin C to support the immune system and breast milk and aromatherapy skin lotion to ease the irritation of the itchy spots. To ease discomfort you could also make sure your child is wearing loose clothing and give tepid sponge baths. If your child has a fever, sponge bathing can help. You could also give a homeopathic remedy, such as belladonna. Electric fans have worked wonders on all my family members, when ill, and can help keep a temperature at a steady level and ease headaches and pain.
Lavender patches can also help with headaches. These are self-adhesive patches that you stick on the forehead which contain cooling lavender. They are available from various outlets, including www.moku-reflexology.co.uk, if you want to buy online. Please note, they are not suitable for pregnant women due to danger to the foetus.
Breast feeding can help as your milk contains antibodies to anything in your baby’s environment including viruses he is exposed to.
If you had chickenpox as a child, you will pass on antibodies to chickenpox in your breast milk, which may prevent or ease the affects of chickenpox on your baby, as well as providing warmth and comfort to him if he’s feeling unwell. I breast fed my then 7 month old through chickenpox and it helped to calm and sooth her. I sprayed breast milk on her spots to heal them up quicker, as mother’s milk is extremely anti-viral.
Should I Vaccinate?
According to NHS Direct, vaccination is not offered as part of the childhood inoculation programme because ‘in most cases it is a mild illness and around 89% of adults will have developed immunity to it. If the chickenpox vaccine were to be added to the list of childhood vaccinations, it is feared that there would be a greater number of cases of shingles in adults, until the vaccination was given to the entire population. This is because adults who have had chickenpox as a child are less likely to have shingles in later life if they have been exposed occasionally to the chickenpox virus (for example by their children). This is because the exposure acts as a booster vaccine. (i.e. exposure protects you from the illness and having the illness as a child protects you from side effects as an adult).
Despite this, researchers are developing an MMRV vaccine and I am willing to bet that when it hits the market, the NHS’s advice on chickenpox and its severity will change.