Chickenpox is an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. Most cases are in children under age 15, but older children and adults can get it. It spreads very easily from one person to another.
The classic symptom of chickenpox is an uncomfortable, itchy rash. The rash turns into fluid-filled blisters and eventually into scabs. It usually shows up on the face, chest, and back and then spreads to the rest of the body. Other symptoms include
- Loss of appetite
Chickenpox is usually mild and lasts 5 to 10 days. Calamine lotions and oatmeal baths can help with itching. Acetaminophen can treat the fever. Do not use aspirin for chickenpox; that combination can cause Reye syndrome.
Chickenpox can sometimes cause serious problems. Adults, babies, teenagers, pregnant women, and those with weak immune systems tend to get sicker from it. They may need to take antiviral medicines.
Once you catch chickenpox, the virus usually stays in your body. You probably will not get chickenpox again, but the virus can cause shingles in adults. A chickenpox vaccine can help prevent most cases of chickenpox, or make it less severe if you do get it.
Risk of Shingles
Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk for developing a skin condition called shingles (herpes zoster) later in life. After someone has had chickenpox, the virus stays dormant (sleeping) in the nervous system for the rest of his or her life, even though the chickenpox goes away. The virus can reactivate (“wake up”) later as shingles. Symptoms include tingling, itching, or pain in one area of the body, followed by a rash with red bumps and blisters.
Luckily, kids and teens almost always have mild cases; severe shingles cases usually affect older people.
Kids who are vaccinated against chickenpox are much less likely to develop shingles when they get older. If it does happen, the case of shingles is usually milder and less likely to cause complications than in someone who wasn’t immunized.
The chickenpox virus spreads both through the air (by coughing and sneezing) and by direct contact with mucus, saliva (spit), or fluid from the blisters. Chickenpox is contagious from about 2 days before the rash appears until all the blisters are crusted over.
A child with chickenpox should be kept out of school until all blisters have dried, usually about 1 week. If you’re unsure about whether your child is ready to return to school, ask your doctor.
Chickenpox is very contagious — most kids with a sibling who’s been infected also will get it (if they haven’t already had the disease or the vaccine), showing symptoms about 2 weeks after the first child does. To help keep it from spreading, make sure your kids wash their hands often, particularly before eating and after using the bathroom.
People who haven’t had chickenpox or the vaccine also can catch it from someone with shingles, but they cannot catch shingles itself. That’s because shingles can only develop from a reactivation of VZV in someone who has previously had chickenpox.
Prevention and Control
The best way to prevent chickenpox is to get the chickenpox vaccine. Children, adolescents, and adults should get two doses of chickenpox vaccine.
Chickenpox vaccine is very safe and effective at preventing the disease. Most people who get the vaccine will not get chickenpox. If a vaccinated person does get chickenpox, it is usually mild—with fewer red spots or blisters and mild or no fever. The chickenpox vaccine prevents almost all cases of severe disease.
For people exposed to chickenpox, call a health care provider if the person
- has never had chickenpox disease and is not vaccinated with the chickenpox vaccine
- is pregnant
- has a weakened immune system caused by disease or medication; for example,
- People with HIV/AIDS or cancer
- Patients who have had transplants, and
- People on chemotherapy, immunosuppressive medications, or long-term use of steroids
Treatments at Home for People with Chickenpox
There are several things that can be done at home to help relieve the symptoms and prevent skin infections. Calamine lotion and colloidal oatmeal baths may help relieve some of the itching. Keeping fingernails trimmed short may help prevent skin infections caused by scratching blisters.
Use non-aspirin medications, such as acetaminophen, to relieve fever from chickenpox.
Do not use aspirin or aspirin-containing products to relieve fever from chickenpox. The use of aspirin in children with chickenpox has been associated with Reye’s syndrome, a severe disease that affects the liver and brain and can cause death.
When to Call the Health Care Provider
Some people are more likely to have a serious case of chickenpox. Call a health care provider if
- the person at risk of serious complications:
- is less than 1 year-old
- is older than 12 years of age
- has a weakened immune system
- is pregnant, or
- develops any of the following symptoms:
- fever that lasts longer than 4 days
- fever that rises above 102°F (38.9°C)
- any areas of the rash or any part of the body becomes very red, warm, or tender, or begins leaking pus (thick, discolored fluid), since these symptoms may indicate a bacterial infection
- extreme illness
- difficult waking up or confused demeanor
- difficulty walking
- stiff neck
- frequent vomiting
- difficulty breathing
- severe cough
- severe abdominal pain
- rash with bleeding or bruising (hemorrhagic rash)
Treatments Prescribed by Your Doctor for People with Chickenpox
Your health care provider can advise you on treatment options. Antiviral medications are recommended for people with chickenpox who are more likely to develop serious disease including
- otherwise healthy people older than 12 years of age
- people with chronic skin or lung disease
- people receiving steroid therapy
- pregnant women
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Source: medlineplus, kidshealth, CDC