How Chickenpox Is Treated

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For most people, treatment for chickenpox simply involves letting it run its course. Most cases do so without complications in a week to 10 days. Oatmeal baths, calamine lotion, over-the-counter pain relievers and antihistamines, and other options are often used to ease discomfort and itching in the meantime. Some people, however, may benefit from an anti-viral medication.

Doctors tend to prescribe this only when particularly vulnerable individuals are affected.

Home Remedies

Chickenpox is a case where Mom and Dad's tried-and-true methods for relief are usually the best course of action. These home remedies can help.

Colloidal Oatmeal Baths

Finely-ground (colloidal) oatmeal has been shown to contain a number of compounds that can relieve irritation, inflammation, and itching from chickenpox (and other skin problems). You can buy colloidal oatmeal bath products at your drugstore, supermarket, big-box store, or online. These typically come in pre-measured packets that you add to bath water.

But it's easy to make your own oatmeal bath by grinding oatmeal into a fine powder in the food processor and adding it to warm bath water (it should look milky when mixed). Soak for 15 to 20 minutes.

Baking Soda

For blisters that have ruptured and are oozing fluid, a soak in lukewarm bath water mixed with baking soda can help dry out the blisters and also relieve itching.

Aim to do this two or three times a day.

Measure the depth of your bathtub, then get a rough sense of how many inches of water you've added. Nationwide Children's Hospital recommends adding one cup of baking soda per inch of water. Remember: Never leave a small child alone in a tub even for a few seconds.

Alternatively, you can add just enough water to baking soda to make a paste and then apply it directly to open blisters.

Clipped Fingernails

The best defense against scratching is not having anything to scratch with at all (at least anything sharp). Scratching a chickenpox rash can cause the blisters to open, leaving skin vulnerable to secondary infections and permanent scarring.

A small child with the disease may not have the self-control to keep her hands off her rash, so keep her fingernails trimmed and her hands very clean. Adults, of course, can also benefit from this. You also can try putting cotton mittens or socks on a child at night, so she's less likely to scratch in her sleep. 

Over-the-Counter Therapies

Some well-known drugstore options may be worthwhile if itching, pain, or other symptoms become too much to handle or are disruptive to sleep or other parts of your day.

Calamine Lotion

Calamine lotion is an OTC product containing either zinc oxide or zinc carbonate, ingredients commonly used to treat diaper rash and contact dermatitis. It's an effective itch-reliever when dabbed directly on the affected area and allowed to dry. You may remember this as the pink lotion you put on bug bites as a child, though it is now also available in clear forms.

Calamine lotion comes in different strengths, so it's important to closely read and follow any directions on the bottle. Take care not to get calamine lotion in your eyes, and don't apply it to the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, genitals, or anus.

Tylenol (acetaminophen)

Chickenpox typically causes viral symptoms such as a headache, fever, fatigue, and muscle aches in addition to the itchiness and inflammation of the rash. Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin (ibuprofen), both non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can help relieve many of these symptoms.

If you have a young child with chickenpox, it's important to make sure the dose you give her is appropriate for her age and weight.

This information is on the medication's package, but check with your child's doctor if you're in doubt.

However, do not give aspirin (or any medication that contains aspirin) to a child under 16. Aspirin has been found to put kids at risk of Reye's syndrome. This potentially life-threatening illness is characterized by vomiting, confusion, personality changes, seizures, liver toxicity, and loss of consciousness.

Oral Antihistamines

For severe itching, an oral antihistamine such as Benedryl (diphenhydramine) may help. This OTC medication, commonly used to treat symptoms of allergies and asthma, causes drowsiness, though, so it's best taken at night. For daytime relief, a newer-generation antihistamine such as Claritin (loratadine), Zyrtec (cetirizine), or Allegra (fexofenadine) can help relieve itching without the sedating effects.

Prescriptions

For most people, a prescription medication is not part of their chickenpox treatment plan. If the itching from chickenpox rash is so severe that over-the-counter antihistamines aren't strong enough, your doctor may prescribe a prescription-strength antihistamine, but that is not typically necessary.

Because chickenpox is caused by a virus (varicella), it won't respond to antibiotics, but there is an antiviral drug used to treat herpes outbreaks called Zovirax (acyclovir) that's sometimes helpful for certain people with chickenpox.

The timing is tricky, though. To be effective, Zovirax must be taken within 24 hours of the first sign of a breakout. What's more, the payoff of this perfect timing is negligible for otherwise healthy kids and adults: At most, it will cut the illness short by about a day and decrease the severity of the rash. 

On the other hand, Zovirax is strongly recommended for newborns, children with an underlying skin condition such as eczema, or those with a compromised immune system.

Certain people who are at risk of becoming seriously ill from chickenpox sometimes are advised to receive a drug called VariZIG (varicella zoster immune globulin). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, persons at risk of severe varicella include include children with leukemia or lymphoma who haven't been vaccinated; people taking immune system suppressing drugs and those with immune-deficiencies; newborns whose mothers become infected with varicella from five days before until two days after being birth; certain premature babies exposed to the virus; and certain pregnant women. 

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Managing People at Risk for Severe Varicella." July 1, 2016.
Cohen, J. and Breuer, J. "Chickenpox: Treatment." BMJ Clin Evid. 2015; 2015:0912. 

Nationwide Children's Hospital. "Chicken Pox." Sept 2011.