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Mairia Cahill: I watched my child in horror as hundreds of spots changed into huge, angry blisters right in front of my eyes

Following the shocking photographs of English toddler Jasper Allen covered from head to foot in red, raw itchy chickenpox published earlier this week, Northern Ireland mum Mairia Cahill tells how her own daughter narrowly avoided being hospitalised with the irritating disease.

Published 03/08/2016

Stressed out: Mairia Cahill
Stressed out: Mairia Cahill
Daughter Saorlaith’s back covered in spots from chicken pox
Pure agony: Jasper Allen hit the headlines after he spent five days in hospital with chicken pox after being turned away by a GP
Pure agony: Jasper Allen hit the headlines after he spent five days in hospital with chicken pox after being turned away by a GP

Catching chickenpox was a rite of passage when I was a child, and if you've had them, you'll remember. If you're unfortunate, like my mother, you will have caught them twice. And, if you're incredibly unlucky, your child will break out 10 days before you are due to fly off on your holidays. Yes, my daughter has the pox, and it's been a hell of a week.

The virus is unusual as a person starts to become contagious two days before the spots appear making it initially impossible to know if someone has it.

I was aware of an outbreak among some friends she had been in contact with recently, who have since had the blisters, but, mindful of our holiday, I had everything crossed that we would dodge them. No such luck.

The dreaded words "Mammy, I'm itchy" started on Tuesday evening as I was reading her bedtime story.

I checked for any sign of spots, and was very relieved that she was clear.

My heart sank on Wednesday morning, however, as my worst fears were confirmed. She had a few fluid filled blisters on her face and back, and I was not amused. My first port of call was my mother. My second was my laptop.

Both confirmed my diagnosis. Browsing the internet is generally not advisable if you're ill, lest you convince yourself that a common cold is really pneumonia, but it is very useful if checking symptoms for your charge.

The internet was full of pox pictures, and advice from other parents who had gone through the experience; and I discovered quickly that giving anti-inflammatory medication like Nurofen to someone with chickenpox can be harmful, which probably saved my daughter from becoming much worse.

I packed myself off to the pharmacy, where I bought different types of cooling gels, and went through the trial and error process to see which was the most effective.

By Wednesday afternoon, her three spots had turned to 10, and I thought: "Well if this is as bad as it gets, we'll be fine."

I couldn't have been more wrong.

As the virus progressed, and her spots came out by the hour, I was grateful to well-meaning friends for sharing their experiences with me, and picked up a few tips.

Paracetamol, gel and oral antihistamine worked well in the first few days, dulling the itch, and has proven to be quite effective with friend's children. Though, like any illness, there is no 'one size fits all' approach.

One person told me to use baking soda, finding it quite useful for drying spots, another told me under no circumstances to use it, as it had only made hers worse.

A few swore by oatmeal baths, while some had a particular cream of choice.

Chickenpox is a notifiable illness in Northern Ireland, meaning that if a GP is aware of a case, they must notify the local authority. Conscious that it's highly contagious, and can be dangerous for pregnant women, among others, I knew we'd be stuck in for a few days, but I had forgotten how hard it can be to keep a small child entertained constantly.

While Saorlaith's viral fever continued, I caught cabin fever. I gave up on keeping the house tidy, as every puzzle and game was produced in an effort to distract from the itch.

Roald Dahl's books were a godsend to read a few chapters aloud at night-time, and even nail varnish (a rare treat in our house) was wheeled out to keep her interested.

I put socks on her hands to stop her nails infecting the blisters, and marvelled at the novel ways a child can find to scratch without breaking the "don't put your hands near your spots" instruction.

She stood like Baloo the bear in The Jungle Book, rubbing her back up and down the wall before I realised what she was doing, came over for cuddles to rub her face on my shoulder, and even lifted my own hand at one point to rub on her belly to dull the itch.

"Talk about thinking outside the pox," I thought to myself.

A sick child I can deal with. Wall to wall cartoons not so much.

We watched The Wizard of Oz and Frozen so many times I could recite them backwards. By Thursday, I had given up on trying to do anything else, and entered into the spirit of singing Let it Go with Itchy Mc Scratchy for the umpteenth time.

By Thursday evening, though, not even Anna and Elsa could rouse interest, as the spots began to multiply. One friend had advised me that all of her child's pox appeared in the first 24 hours.

Saorlaith's showed no signs of stopping.

Friday morning was a disaster. My little spotty daughter caught sight of herself in the mirror and recoiled.

Feeling awful, I tried everything to cheer her up. I let her dab cream on my face, so she wouldn't feel too bad about her own spots. We looked quite the picture, and it was good fun, until the postman arrived at the door.

I did what any woman with pink cream all over their face would do, and hid in the kitchen.

By the evening I was seeing red dots everywhere, and, as discomfort turned to pain and tears in the middle of the night, I began to worry that this was not a routine case of pox, but a pretty bad dose.

I spent the night looking over her as she moaned in her sleep, and watched in horror as hundreds of spots turned into huge, angry blisters in front of my eyes.

Literally everywhere, including the soles of her feet, was covered with a mass of angry red pustules, and she looked horrendous.

On Saturday, when swallowing became painful and she could no longer cuddle, I called the out-of-hours doctor who agreed to see her straight away.

The doctor confirmed it was severe, and prescribed strong anti-viral medication, normally only given to children with compromised immune systems. I have no doubt that had it been left any longer, she would be in hospital now, so I'm thankful to the GP for having the presence of mind to request to see her.

Others have not been so lucky, according to reports this week of GP surgeries in England turning children away, who were later hospitalised.

Most cases of chickenpox are mild, and children recover in time, but a few will require medical treatment.

The NHS advises parents to call the doctor if the virus is not improving, the patient has a severe headache or constant vomiting, problems breathing, or red, warm or sore skin. Their site online has other good advice.

My daughter is definitely turning a corner, and we may just have a chance of making our holiday if my GP is happy that she's fit to fly.

If not, it will be disappointing but not the end of the world. She's been very unlucky with her reaction to the virus, but it could have been worse.

So, for now, there is nothing else for it but to put our feet up and wait.

Those cartoons won't watch themselves, you know.

Belfast Telegraph

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