Our resident pharmacist explains how to ease itchy chickenpox and measles outbreaks.
If your child catches chickenpox or the measles, they will more than likely struggle with itching and feel irritable and under the weather for a week or two, but if managed properly your child should recover from both before long. But in the meantime, what’s the best way to treat the painful itching?
Our resident pharmacist Rita Ghelani speaks to GP Dr Sarah Jarvis, consultant in infectious diseases Dr Sarah Wakelin, and consultant paediatrician Dr Gareth Tudor-Williams about how to manage these common but uncomfortable childhood illnesses:
The difference between chickenpox and measles
Chickenpox and measles are common childhood illnesses caused by different viruses that both result in a rash. While both chickenpox and measles are highly contagious, The duration of the two viruses differ and a child with chickenpox is likely to feel a lot less sick compared to a child with measles, and measles symptoms may last longer. However, treatments for chickenpox and measles are more or less the same.
Known medically as varicella, chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is highly contagious and spreads quickly. Early symptoms of chickenpox include your child feeling generally unwell, losing their appetite and developing a fever. A red, spotty rash typically appears a couple of days later. This turns into fluid-filled blisters, which eventually scab over. Around 90 per cent of children catch chickenpox before they reach the age of four.
Measles is on the rise, due to poor take-up of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination that was linked inaccurately to autism. Measles is more serious than chickenpox and can lead to complications such as hearing loss. In rare cases, it can prove fatal. The symptoms of measles include fever, red eyes, a red-brown spotty rash and sensitivity to light.
Chickenpox and measles treatment tips
The rash that develops with both chickenpox and measles can be very uncomfortable, especially if the spots develop in sensitive areas. Treating the itching to help minimise scratching the rash will help to prevent scarring and reduce the risk of the spots getting infected.
The rash that develops with both chickenpox and measles can be very uncomfortable.
‘As measles and chickenpox are caused by viruses, there is no cure,’ says Dr Jarvis. ‘But most children will get better soon and there are things you can do to help relieve your child’s symptoms.’
Scratching blisters can lead to further infections, sleepless nights and permanent scarring, but there are several over-the-counter remedies to counter the itching outbreak. Try the following tips to treat both chickenpox and measles and your little one should start to feel better in a week or two:
Isolate your child if they have chickenpox or measles
Both measles and chickenpox are highly contagious, so your child should remain at home. ‘When you first notice the spots, call your child’s nursery or school immediately,’ says Dr Wakelin.
Keep infected children away from pregnant women, newborn babies and relatives in hospital or anyone with a weak immune system, such as patients undergoing chemotherapy or individuals with HIV or AIDS. These groups of people could develop serious complications if they catch measles or chickenpox.
Keep your child cool
It’s important that you keep your child cool because heat and sweat can make the itching worse.
‘Dress your child in light, loose fitting cotton clothing and keep bedding to a minimum, so they don’t get too hot,’ says Dr Jarvis.’ Sweaty skin is more likely to feel irritated and uncomfortable.’
Keep hydration levels topped up
Make sure that your child drinks plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Mix in some orange, pineapple or grape juice if you struggle to persuade them to drink plain water.
Avoid salty foods, which can make sore throats feel worse. Serve soup, which is nutritious and easy to swallow – but don’t serve it too hot.
Sugar-free ice lollies will cheer up your sick child, soothe a sore throat and are a good way of keeping them hydrated.
Stop your child from scratching
Avoid scratching the blisters because of the risk of infection. Trim your child’s fingernails and keep them clean and short to prevent them from scratching the itchy fluid-filled blisters, which causes skin damage. You can also place scratch mitts or socks over your child’s hands at night to stop scratching.
‘The red spots of chickenpox are very itchy and scratching can lead to infection and eventually scarring – so it is important to break the itch/scratch cycle,’ recommends Dr Tudor-Williams.
Reduce fever with paracetamol
If your child is in pain or has a fever you can give them paracetamol (eg Calpol). Follow the dosage instructions provided in the leaflet.
‘Infant paracetamol reduces your child’s fever. Your local pharmacist can advise how much is appropriate for your child’s age,’ says Dr Jarvis.
Don’t give small children ibuprofen or aspirin. Light-sensitive children with measles may also prefer a darkened bedroom.
Use calamine lotion to soothe itching
Try aqueous calamine cream or calamine lotion on the spots. Aqueous calamine cream is easier to apply then calamine lotion as it has a thicker consistency.
‘Calamine lotion, which contains zinc oxide, provides a temporary soothing cooling effect, but tends to crust over and be messy,’ says Dr Wakelin.
Try cooling gels to relieve scratching
Cooling gels, such as Virasoothe, are also pleasant to use and don’t sting. Virasoothe lessens the urge to scratch blisters and encourages healing by reducing infection. Long-term scarring is reduced and a less uncomfortable child will be able to sleep better.
‘Virasoothe helps to hydrate skin and cool itchy lesions by drawing moisture up to the surface,’ says Dr Wakelin. This gel can safely be applied to both body and face and is available in pharmacies. It is suitable for children over 6 months old.
Antihistamine to ease itching and aid sleep
To help ease the itching and soothe the spots, use an antihistamine such as chlorphenamine (for children aged one year and older).
In attacks of chickenpox or measles where the itching is so serious that the child’s sleep is disturbed, antihistamines such as piriton which has a sedative effect can be used. Getting a good night’s sleep aids healing and will make your child feel less grouchy.
‘To help your child get to sleep, a sedating antihistamine may be useful before bed,’ suggests Dr Jarvis. ‘Ask your pharmacist for their advice about which products are suitable for your child’s age-group.’
Try oatmeal baths to relieve itchy skin
Giving your toddler a cool bath can help relieve itching. Try using an oatmeal bath product, such as Aveeno bath oil or sprinkle finely ground oatmeal into a tub of warm, running water to soothe itchy chickenpox skin. Oatmeal makes the bath slippery, so help your child in and out.
Cool sponging may also help to cool children down. Adding a small cup of baking soda to bathwater can also relieve itching. After a bath pat the skin dry rather than rub, then apply aqueous calamine cream to the spots.
When should you visit the doctor?
Ring your GP instead of visiting the surgery, to prevent the spread of infection.
‘If you think that you or your child has measles or chickenpox, call your GP, especially if your child is under four weeks old, has infected skin blisters or is experiencing breathing difficulties or chest pains,’ says Dr Jarvis