I am picking up the A – Z of Common Complaints and Top to Toe Health posts again after the summer. You may have read some of the posts in the last three years, but I am updating again with any new treatment protocols.
As children begin school for the first time or return after the long summer break, there is likely to be an outbreak of one of the common childhood infections including chicken pox.
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Chicken pox is one of the most common childhood illnesses with an estimated 9 out of 10 children contracting the virus. In itself it is usually mild and whilst uncomfortable because of the itching and general feeling of being unwell, it passes within two weeks.
There has been a great deal of research into childhood illnesses such as chickenpox, measles, German measles and mumps and their effect on the immune system. It is generally believed that provided the diseases do not cause complications that it will boost the immune system into adulthood.
There is a proviso with this assumption. It may not be the case if a child is treated with antibiotics previously for bacterial infections which may have already weakened the immune system. Some parents deliberately put their children in the path of others with chicken pox, but it can be a double-edged sword as there is a link between the disease and the onset of auto immune conditions such as asthma and the possibility of shingles in later life.
The symptoms of Chicken pox.
This is a very contagious disease and it is caused by the varicella-zoster virus and can be transmitted by touch or by breathing in the virus particles from a persons breath or sneezing. Symptoms to be aware of in a child is persistent itching in the stomach area, unusual tiredness and a slight fever. Check the stomach for a rash and also see if it has spread to the back or face. It can spread to cover the body with between 250 and 500 blisters. It often forms blisters in the mouth too which can make drinking and eating very uncomfortable.
Catching it an early stage is important to prevent your child returning to school and infecting any more classmates. Consult with your doctor, who will hopefully come to your house to confirm the diagnosis, as they probably will not want you taking your child to the surgery! You should inform your child’s school so that they can check to see if there are any other potential cases. I would hope that if they had already been notified of a case of chicken pox, that they would have notified all other parents anyway.
Chicken pox can be very dangerous for babies in the family and you should make sure that they do not have any contact with their brother or sister. You also need to take some basic but important hygiene precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. Personally I suggest disposable gloves, keep all towels separate and move other children to another room if they share.
The elderly generation is also at risk and should avoid all contact with any members of the family who have been infected. The incubation period from infection to the first spot is 1- 2 days and then they are contagious until scabs have formed on the blisters which is usually between 5 – 7 days.
The chicken pox vaccine
Over the years since babies and toddlers have been vaccinated there have been opposing arguments laid out by both the medical profession and parents. And I suggest that if you are a parent that you do take a look at both sides of the issue. There are a number of government sites that lay out the medical position and then there are alternative therapist and parent sites with their views.. I suggest you search for Chicken pox Vaccination pros and cons.
The old school approach, and certainly when I was a child, was to let a child catch the infection and that it would strengthen the growing immune system.
I had a small pox vaccination very young and yellow fever as we lived in the tropics where the diseases were still endemic. I got measles at three and do remember being in a dark room (measles and sunlight can cause eye damage) and I had chicken pox when I was 11 years old. But, I was one of those who went on to develop shingles in adulthood so on reflection I think I might have preferred to have the vaccination.
Anyway – what is the course of action if your child does have chickenpox.
Apart from taking the hygiene measures to protect yourself and the rest of the family it is recommended that your child has bed rest, is kept hydrated (water not fizzy drinks), pureed (warm not hot) foods that are soft and easy to eat if there are blisters in the mouth.
Paracetamol appropriate for the age of the child and check with your pharmacy. Also calamine lotion for the spots and blisters and if they are particularly itchy talk to the pharmacist for some chlorpheniramine anti-histamine medicine which can help alleviate some of the itching.
Do not give a child or adult with chicken pox ibuprofen as it can make them very ill.
Keep your finger nails and your childs trimmed short to prevent breaking open the skin and it is a good idea to pop some cotton gloves on your child at night or some socks that are tied at the wrist.
If you are going to bathe the child, then use lukewarm water and dab a damp soft cloth over the body and then pat dry with another. Wash cloth after use in hot temperatures.
Dress the child in loose cotton clothing rather than their normal pajamas.
Keep an eye on the progress of the infection and take your child’s temperature twice a day and if it continues to rise despite paracetamol or goes over 39 C.. it is less for babies under 3 months old at 38 C.
Now for the bonus that you can find chickenpox has gifted you.
Certainly there is a higher risk of contracting shingles later in life if you have contracted chickenpox as a child, especially in those over 70 years old whose immune system has naturally declined in function and as a result of lifestyle, diet and prescribed medication.
What is shingles?
Also known as herpes zoster, shingles is an infection of a nerve and the skin that surrounds it and is caused by the same varicella-zoster virus which causes chickenpox.
It results in a painful rash which develops into blisters containing particles of the virus and they are extremely itchy. This itch element is guaranteed to get the host scratching, breaking the blister and dispersing the virus. The person unlucky enough to come into contact that virus will not catch shingles but can develop chicken pox if they have not already had the disease previously.
The other interesting factor associated with shingles is that it usually only affects one area on one side of the body and rarely crosses over your centre line through the body.
For example I had chicken pox when I was 11 years old and had 10 days off school. Apart from the fact that I managed to read War and Peace during that time, I also retained the virus which lay dormant in my body. When I was 24 years old, I developed shingles around one eye but not the other. It was one of the most painful things I have experienced and it was also potentially dangerous as it could have potentially affected the sight of that eye.
At that time I was under a great deal of stress and my immune system was naturally under-performing. Apart from stress and being over 70 years old you are also at risk if you have been on long-term medication or have an underlying chronic infection.
An episode of shingles will usually last between two to three weeks although some people will continue to experience nerve pain in the form of postherpetic neuralgia long-term.
Thankfully it is rare for more than one attack of shingles in your lifetime.
You do need to visit your GP if you begin to suffer from pain in a specific area of the body that develops into a rash. This is particularly important if you are pregnant or already have a diagnosed auto immune disease or weakened immune system.
I mentioned earlier that you will not catch shingles from someone, but could get chickenpox instead, so it is important to visit your GP if this is the case. There is a vaccine available, and as those over 70 are in the high risk category, in the UK a vaccination programme is in place for anyone over that age. Only one dose is usually necessary but a booster is administered at 78 or 79 years old. Most countries also offer this to that age group.
Apart from a preventative vaccination that reduces your risk of developing shingles, there is no cure. It is recommended to keep the area that is affected covered with a non-stick dressing to prevent others from being infected with chickenpox. Painkillers can be taken and if it is a severe outbreak antiviral medication can stop the virus spreading.
There are some commonsense actions you can take that might reduce the length of the infection and pain of shingles.
Wear lightweight cotton gloves at night which is when you will be more prone to automatically scratch the blisters. Also wear when you are watching television or any other activity where you might be tempted to scratch.
You can place a cool compress over the affected area and then use calamine lotion to ease the itching. I have used colloidal silver and tea tree cream on rashes that have helped but ask expert advice in your Health store or pharmacy.
If you go online you will find various sites that will recommend other alternative remedies and I have no doubt that some will indeed shorten the infection or ease the symptoms but my advice is not to buy online, but to speak with a qualified advisor in person. It is important to remember that you might be left with long term nerve pain and that anything you use should be considered carefully. To be honest this goes for prescribed medication too.
If you are suffering from an outbreak of shingles then your immune system needs boosting. If you have a diet high in processed foods and sugars you will not be providing your body with the nutrients it needs to sustain this vital health system.
Do not drink alcohol and follow a very simple diet of fresh vegetables, wholegrains fruit, and of lean protein with plenty of fluids.
Nutrients that can help you limit the extent of the shingles outbreak.
Viruses thrive in a body that is nutrient deficient. There is a particular link to an imbalance of amino acids in a person whose immune system is not functioning efficiently.
This is particularly relevant to the herpes family of viruses that prefer a system high in the amino acid L-Arginine in relation to L-Lysine. Arginine enables the virus to replicate in the nucleus of your cells, which spreads the virus through your body. Lysine however has an antiviral action that blocks the arginine and therefore helps limit the extent of the outbreak.
At the onset of an attack of shingles switch to a high lysine diet including foods such as poultry, fish, beef, chickpeas and up your dairy intake and eggs.You want to build your immune system to include plenty of green vegetables that are particularly high in Lysine such as green beans, Brussel Sprouts, asparagus, avocados, apricots, pineapple, pears and apples.
Drop the high arginine foods such as tomatoes, grapes and the darker berries. The same applies to most nuts, oats, chocolate (sorry) and caffeine (sorry again).
Other ways to boost your immune system
If you have shingles on an exposed area of your skin you do not want to expose to direct sunlight; despite the fact that it will help dry out the blisters. However, Vitamin D is vital to a strong immune system, and if you can get 45 minutes a day in the morning or late afternoon with sunlight onto your bare forearms you will receive a boost of the vitamin.
Your fresh fruit and vegetables will be providing you with Vitamin C, and your eggs with Vitamin E. However, there is one supplement that I do take especially now I am into my 60s, and that is Vitamin B12. This can be difficult to obtain from food and I take sublingually, under the tongue daily for a few weeks at a time and I find that this helps prevent me from developing infections.
I hope this has been helpful and would be grateful if you could spread the message in any way that you can.
If you have any questions that might be useful for other readers please use the comments section but you can always email via sally(dot)cronin (at) moyhill.com if you wish to have a private word. Thanks Sally