Killer myths about chicken pox

Photo above: The scars left on a child who was afflicted with a severe bout of chickenpox and had to be hospitalised.

Planning a chicken pox party to expose your child to the "harmless" virus? Don't.

It is a myth that it is beneficial to expose children to this contagious infection at a young age, says Professor Anne Goh, President of the Singapore Paediatric Society

In most cases, chickenpox causes a rash, fever, headache and tiredness. In a worst case scenario, up to 500 blisters erupting all over the body - even inside the mouth - can result in an infection and land your child in hospital.

It has been reported that about one out of 500 unvaccinated children with chickenpox will need hospital care.

Other than high fever, there is the risk of skin disease, potential scarring from the infected blisters, and more frightening, serious complications such as inflammation of the brain membrane.

"Many fail to realise that beyond dehydration, diarrhoea and skin infection associated with chickenpox, the infection can lead to more serious complications such as inflammation of the brain membrane, pneumonia, and, even death, in rare cases," warned Prof Goh.

It is simply not possible to predict who will get a mild case of chickenpox and who will contract a fatal one.

Why take the risk of exposure to a potentially fatal infection when a simple vaccination will protect your child?

A person with chickenpox is infectious from two days before the rash first appears until all the spots have crusted over - which is commonly about five days after the onset of the illness.

This means that in a highly populated city such as Singapore, the virus can be easily picked up at childcare and enrichment centers, swimming pools and nursing homes, among many other places.

The only protection against chickenpox is to get the antibody against the varicella zoster virus that causes it.

In Singapore, although it is not compulsory to vaccinate children against chickenpox, doctors recommend children to be vaccinated between 12 to 18 months.

Parents can ask for the MMRV vaccine, which is a combination vaccine that will protect your child against measles, mumps, and rubella, in addition to the chickenpox virus.

I've already contracted it once. I'm immune, right?

Yes, people who have contracted the disease in the past usually obtain immunity after first infection. However, some people do not develop the antibodies needed to protect them against reinfection.

According to one study, one in eight people diagnosed with chickenpox reported that they had contracted the disease before.

Another 2007 study found that after having chickenpox, only 75 per cent of children aged one to four developed immunity.

And be warned: Symptoms tend to be worse in adults than children.

Those who suffer from poor immunity due to an illness or drugs known as immunosuppresants, the elderly and pregnant women have an increased chance of developing severe complications from chickenpox and therefore should be extra careful, said Prof Goh.

Besides the vaccine, there are anti-viral medications available which can be prescribed to individuals who are immune-compromised.

I've contracted chickenpox. It's a virus, so I don't need to take medicines as they won't do anything.

False. Specific antiviral medication such as Acyclovir can be prescribed by a doctor to help to reduce the number of vesicles and possibly shorten the duration of the illness.

However, they have to be given early in the disease - within 48hrs of the pox appearing - to be effective. So it's best not to wait too long before heading to the doctor.

On the patient's part, home remedies such as soothing baths can help to relieve itching. Try grinding or blending dry oatmeal into a fine powder and adding it into bath water. Baking soda can also help reduce the itching.

Applying Calamine lotion to sooth the skin is also a common remedy. For similar over-the-counter preparations, do consult your doctor or pharmacist.

The most important thing, Prof Goh stressed, is to remember not to scratch or break the lesions, as this will invite infection that cause scarring and pigmentation.

Other myths

For those who believe in the old wives tale that chickenpox sufferers cannot eat dark-coloured foods, chicken, seafood or eggs, these are all myths.

There is no medical basis that eating these foods interfere with the healing process, and there are no foods that can make the condition worse, Prof Goh said.

It is also fine to bathe and wash one's hair. However, do not rub down but rather dab dry with a towel after a bath. This is so that you do not break the lesions and invite infection, she advised.

Most importantly, whether it's you or a loved one infected, you should consult a doctor as soon as possible.

It is important to let the doctor access the severity of the condition or any potential complications and decide the right medication to take, she said.

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