Dr. Phelan By General Practitioner Published:

Chickenpox parties, once in vogue in the 1970s and 1980s, are seeing a resurgence, with some convinced they’re a good idea.

But should youngsters be deliberately exposed to chickenpox in order to give them lifelong immunisation?

It’s a question that polarises opinion among parents and the medical profession alike.

Childhood illness

At a chickenpox party, youngsters are encouraged to mingle with others who have chickenpox in the belief that as it’s a mild and common childhood illness that most youngsters catch at some point.

Chickenpox, while unpleasant, is often milder when experienced in childhood than if contracted as an adult. The rationale for the parties is that it’s therefore likely to be better for children to get chickenpox at an early age. Once caught, immunity to chickenpox is lifelong.

Some groups of parents may arrange chickenpox parties so their children have the illness at the same time.

Others feel it’s irresponsible for parents to deliberately infect their children with what can be a distressing illness, or have their children deliberately infect others.

While the NHS doesn’t publish an official view on chickenpox parties, its general advice is to ‘prevent spreading the infection’ by keeping children ‘off nursery or school until all spots have crusted over’.

Public Health England advises keeping infected children away from public areas, recommends that parents inform their school or nursery and keep them at home for five days.

As a GP, my experience is that chickenpox is a bit of a lottery and that parents cannot ever really know how their child will react to the illness until they catch it.

For some children, it can be nothing more than a mild irritation.

But for others it’s quite distressing, resulting in a body covered in intensely itchy blisters, a high temperature and other flu-like symptoms that can make a small child feel quite poorly.

However, most healthy children recover from chickenpox with no lasting ill-effects simply by resting, just as with a cold or the flu.

Chickenpox treatment

There are treatments available from a pharmacist without a prescription to ease the symptoms of chickenpox, including spray gels that help to relieve itching.

When you’re considering whether or not to take your child to a chickenpox party, bear in mind that if he/she catches it, there’s a chance that other members of your family will get it too, if they’ve not had it before.

Chickenpox tends to be more severe in adults than children, with adults having a higher risk of developing complications.

Also, remember that some children and adults are at special risk of serious problems if they catch chickenpox, including pregnant women, newborn babies and people with a weakened immune system.