Each year, there are more than 3.5 million cases of varicella — or the chicken pox, as we commonly call it. It’s a virus that needs to naturally run its course, which means it will last anywhere from five to 10 days (which can feel like a lifetime for kids and adults alike).
While it used to be a common childhood illness in the United States, especially in kids under age 12, chicken pox is rarer now thanks to the introduction of the varicella vaccine in 1995. Nowadays, kids get the vaccine when they’re 12 to 15 months old and then follow that up with a booster shot between the ages of 4 and 6.
But when your little one does catch a case of the chicken pox, it’s no easy feat to soothe all that itching plus the aches and pains. Sure, you know you shouldn’t let your kid scratch the rash — but what else can you do to ease your poor kiddo’s suffering? From over-the-counter remedies to at-home soothing soaks, here are five ways to soothe a child with chicken pox.
Quell aches & pains with acetaminophen
The chicken pox virus typically comes with viral-type symptoms, such as headache, fever, fatigue, sore throat, stomachache and muscle aches. When your children are suffering through these discomforts, you can give them acetaminophen (Tylenol) according to the dosage information on the bottle.
However, do avoid anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen. Taking this can make your child very ill. Plus, children under 16 years old should never take aspirin, as it could lead to Reye’s syndrome, a severe disease that affects the liver and brain and can cause death.
Reduce itching with soaks
Cool or lukewarm baths (not too hot or too cold) with two cups of ground oatmeal blended in (use home-ground oatmeal or a store-bought oatmeal bath packet like Aveeno) can help reduce itching in children with chicken pox. Adding one-half to one cup of baking soda to the bath may also put a halt to the itches. Give your child a bath frequently — every three to four hours — for the first few days of the virus.
Other ways to calm itchy chicken pox skin include:
- Tap or pat the itch. Never scratch! This includes when you’re drying your child’s skin off post-bath: Just dab or pat it.
- Wear loose cotton clothing. This allows skin to breathe.
- Keep your cool. Use a cool, wet washcloth on itchy areas to calm skin.
Dry up chicken pox with lotion
Calamine is the most common lotion used to soothe itching due to chicken pox; apply it directly to blisters to help them dry out and give skin relief. Do not, however, use calamine lotion on the face near the eyes.
“My strategy was to give them a bottle of Caladryl and an artist’s brush and let them paint their ‘polka dots,'” says Elisabeth Morrissey, author of It’s Not All About You! and former nanny. “Then they’d get to play dot-to-dot and draw pictures with the spots.”
Treat itching from the inside with medication
You can also give kids over-the-counter antihistamines such as Benadryl to lessen severe itching. Due to its drowsiness-inducing nature, though, Benadryl works best at night. Claritin or Zyrtec may also help diminish severe itching from blisters, and those do not cause drowsiness. You may also discuss antiviral medications such as Zovirax with your doctor; these may shorten the course of the virus.
Before you administer any medications, though, check with your doctor first to make sure your child can safely take antihistamines.
Keep your child hydrated
In order to stave off dehydration, make sure kids drink lots of fluids. This will help the body rid itself of the virus faster. (And yes, they do need to ditch sugary drinks and choose water instead).
In terms of food, if chicken pox sores develop in the child’s mouth, keep them on a soft, bland diet. Avoid hard, spicy or salty foods; these can make your kid’s mouth very sore. You can, however, offer a few sugar-free or 100 percent juice ice pops. (Your kid will love that.)
Avoid bacterial infections by preventing scratching
Scratching varicella blisters can lead to skin and bacterial infections, so make sure to keep kiddo’s nails trimmed to keep him from breaking open itchy chicken pox sores. You can also have young children wear cotton mittens to prevent scratching, especially at night during sleep.
But before you do anything…
Do you suspect one of your kids has caught a case of varicella? You may want to get a professional opinion before treating it as chicken pox.
“With the vaccines available today, incidents of chicken pox are rare,” explains Dr. Charles I. Shubin of Mercy Medical Center. “If you suspect that your child has the chicken pox, call your pediatrician immediately to rule out other possibilities.”
But for those kids who do come down with for-real varicella, you’re now prepared to be a superhero parent, conquering the pox like it ain’t no thing.
A version of this article was originally published in November 2011.