Chickenpox (chicken pox), also known as varicella, is a highly contagious infection caused by the varicella zoster virus. Although uncomfortable, most people recover within 1-2 weeks.
There is a blister-like rash, which first appears on the face and trunk, and then spreads throughout the body. Although not life-threatening, complications can arise.
Fast facts on chickenpox
- Chickenpox is caused by the varicella zoster virus.
- Varicella has an incubation period of 10-21 days.
- Chickenpox is highly contagious.
- The infection spreads in a similar way to colds and flu.
- A diagnosis can normally be reached by observing the signs and symptoms.
Before the rash appears, there will be:
- a general feeling of being unwell (malaise)
- fever, which is usually worse in adults than children
- aching muscles
- loss of appetite
- in some cases, a feeling of nausea
After the rash appears, there will be:
- Rash: Severity varies from a few spots to a rash that covers the whole body.
- Spots: The spots develop in clusters and generally appear on the face, limbs, chest, and stomach. They tend to be small, red, and itchy.
- Blisters: Blisters can develop on the top of the spots. These can become very itchy.
- Clouding: Within about 48 hours, the blisters cloud over and start drying out. A crust develops.
- Healing: Within about 10 days, the crusts fall off on their own.
New waves of spots may occur during the whole cycle-in these cases, the patient may have various clusters of spots at different levels of itchiness, dryness, and crustiness.
A few people have more severe symptoms.
If the following occur, a doctor should be contacted:
- the skin around the spots or blisters becomes painful and red
- there are breathing difficulties
Many healthy individuals make a complete recovery by resting and drinking plenty of water, as with a cold or flu.
Chickenpox typically recovers untreated within a week or two. There is no cure but it can be avoided by a vaccine.
A doctor can prescribe medicine or advice on how to minimize itchiness and discomfort symptoms, and also how to prevent the infection from spreading to others.
Pain or fever: Tylenol (acetaminophen) can help with elevated temperature and pain symptoms. It is necessary to adhere to the manufacturer’s instructions. Aspirin containing chickenpox products should NOT be used as this may lead to complications. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be used during pregnancy at any given time.
Avoiding dehydration: To avoid dehydration it is necessary to drink plenty of fluids, preferably water. For children who are not drinking enough, some doctors prescribe sugar free popsicles or Pedialyte.
Mouth soreness: Sugar-free popsicles tend to relieve symptoms of soreness if spots in the mouth are present. You should avoid salty or spicy foods. If it is difficult to chew, soup may be a good choice but it should not be too hot.
Itchiness: ltchiness may get serious, but avoiding scratching is crucial to minimize the risk of scarring.
The following may help prevent scratching:
- keeping fingernails clean and as short as possible
- placing mittens or even socks over a child’s hands when they go to sleep, so that any attempt at scratching during the night does not cut the skin
- applying calamine lotion or having an oatmeal bath to reduce itching
- wearing loose clothing
Antiviral medications can be administered during pregnancy, for early diagnosed adults, newborns, and those with a compromised immune system. One example is acyclovir.
This works best when given within 24 hours after symptoms develop. Acyclovir decreases symptom severity but does not cure disease.
There is a vaccine available for varicella. 2 doses of the varicella vaccine are given for infants, one at 12 to 15 months and one at 4 to 6 years of age. They are successful at 90 percent in preventing varicose veins.
Chickenpox vaccine is frequently given to children in the United states.
Adults are more vulnerable to complications than children but they are uncommon even in adults.
If the blisters are infected with bacteria there is a greater chance of complications.
Pregnant mothers, newborns and babies aged up to 4 weeks and those with compromised immune systems are more likely to encounter complications.
If the skin is turned red and tender or sore around the spots and blisters, they can become infected. Some people with varicose veins can develop pneumonia on.
Encephalitis: The brain can become inflamed.
Reye’s syndrome: This unusual but dangerous disorder may occur when children and adolescents recover from a viral infection involving varicose veins. It is causing inflammation in the liver and brain.
Most people who experience problems are going to get a full recovery.
Chickenpox and pregnancy
Throughout pregnancy the risk of contracting pneumonia with chickenpox is significantly higher.
There is also a possibility that the infection can be passed on to the fetus.
When infection occurs within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, there is an increased risk of fetal varicella syndrome which can lead to scarring, eye problems, brain leakage and shortened arms or legs.
If the infection occurs later during pregnancy, the varicella may be transmitted directly to the fetus and the baby may be born with varicella.
When during pregnancy, be it chickenpox or shingles, you are exposed to varicella, it is important to speak to a doctor right away.
Chickenpox and a weakened immune system
For a person with a weakened immune system, the chances of catching chickenpox and developing complications are higher
- A weakened immune system can result if a person:
- is taking certain medications
- has cancer
- is undergoing treatment such as radio- or chemotherapy
- has a chronic condition, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis
Chickenpox complications may include meningitis, sepsis, septicemia, or pneumonia.
Warning: The following images may be considered graphic:
Chickenpox develops in stages.
In a similar way, the varicella, colds and flu spread. People may become infected by actually touching the blisters or by breathing in the virus particles from the blisters or from the air surrounding those infected.
Chickenpox is mostly transmitted by:
- direct contact with the blisters of someone who has the varicella zoster virus
- breathing in the virus particles from someone’s blisters
- breathing in small particles from the mouth of someone talking or coughing
Varicella has an incubation time of 10 to 21 days. In other words, following exposure to the virus, the rash will appear within 10 to 21 days.
An infected person is infectious about 2 days before the rash appears. The rash can contain between 250 and 500 itchy blisters.
Chickenpox remains contagious for another 5 to 7 days, or until all the blisters become scabs.
Anyone contaminated can no longer pass it on to others after all the lesions have crusted over, but people with compromised immune systems can be infectious for longer.
The pox marks mostly heal without scarring.
The same infection causes chicken pox and shingles. Shingles happens when a prior case of chicken pox reactivates the varicella zoster virus.
Complications of shingles can include:
- postherpetic neuralgia, with pain from shingles lasting long after the blisters have gone
- vision loss if shingles cause eye infections
- neurological problems due to inflammation in the brain
- skin infections, especially if blisters are not treated correctly
You can’t catch shingles from another human, but someone with shingles can catch chickenpox from someone who has never had chickenpox or was never vaccinated. You can’t get shingles from anyone with the chickenpox, though.
Chickenpox is caused by the Varicella Zoster virus. People become infected after contacting an infected child or adult.
Varicose veins are among the most contagious diseases. People who have never been vaccinated and who have never had chickenpox are at the greatest risk of infection.
A doctor or nurse will know whether a child or adult has varicose veins just by looking at it and asking a few questions. There is no need for diagnostic examinations to help in diagnosis. Chickenpox may be confused with scabies, or other kinds of insect bites, on rare occasions.