What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox (also called varicella) causes an itchy, blistering skin rash and mild fever. It is usually a mild disease that lasts for a short time in healthy children, but it can be more severe in adults.

Chickenpox is a serious disease because it can cause scarring, pneumonia, brain damage and sometimes death. One in 33,000 people with chickenpox can develop encephalitis (brain inflammation).

After you have had chickenpox, the virus stays in your body. It can come back later in life and cause shingles (also called herpes zoster).

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes shingles.

What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

The main symptom is an itchy red rash that turns into blisters, which then burst and crust over. Chickenpox can also cause flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache and sore throat.

Symptoms usually start about two weeks after catching chickenpox. The symptoms stay from between 10 to 21 days.

Who is at risk from chickenpox?

Chickenpox can affect people at any age.

Children usually have mild disease and recover quickly.

Adults, newborn babies and people who have a weakened immune system usually have a more severe illness from the virus.

During pregnancy, chickenpox can be serious for both the mother and the baby. Pregnant women who get chickenpox for the first time can have severe disease. The baby can be born with severe chickenpox, or have damage to their skin, limbs, eyes or nervous system.

Although some vaccinated children will still get chickenpox, they generally will have a much milder form of the disease and more rapid recovery. The vaccine almost always prevents against severe disease.

How do you get chickenpox?

Chickenpox spreads:

  • when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and you breathe in virus particles
  • by direct contact with the fluid from someone else’s chickenpox blisters.

Chickenpox is very contagious. It spreads easily through families, childcare centres and schools.

How do you prevent chickenpox?

Vaccination is the best protection against chickenpox.

The chickenpox vaccine prevents most, but not all people getting chickenpox and complications caused by the disease.  Immunised children who get chickenpox generally have a much milder form of the disease. They have fewer skin lesions, a lower fever and recover more quickly.  Chickenpox vaccination also protects you from developing shingles later in life.

For more information on chickenpox immunisation, see Chickenpox immunisation service.

If you have chickenpox, you can help stop the disease spreading by:

  • staying away from childcare, school, work or other places where you could spread the infection – your doctor will tell you when you are no longer infectious
  • washing your hands often
  • covering your coughs and sneezes.

How do you know if you have chickenpox?

If you think you or one of your family members has chickenpox, see your doctor. Chickenpox is usually diagnosed by looking at the rash. It is important to let the receptionist know of your concern so that you can be separated from other people in the waiting room.

Your doctor may ask about your symptoms and whether you’ve been in contact with someone who has chickenpox. If your doctor thinks you have chickenpox, they can test some of the fluid from the blisters to see if it has the virus in it.

How do you get treated for chickenpox?

Chickenpox is usually mild and gets better on its own without any treatment.

You can relieve the symptoms by:

  • resting
  • having lukewarm baths with baking soda or oatmeal in the water
  • using creams or lotions such as calamine lotion to reduce the itching
  • taking paracetamol to reduce fever.

If you have severe chickenpox, you may be given medicines to treat the virus.

Pregnant women who have not had the chickenpox disease or the chickenpox vaccine may be given medicines to help prevent infection. If you are pregnant and have been in contact with someone with chickenpox, speak to your doctor for advice.

More information


If you need advice or more information about immunisation, go to our Immunisation contacts page.

Last updated: 
11 December 2017