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What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease, usually associated with childhood. By adulthood, more than 95 percent of Americans have had chickenpox.

The disease is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). Transmission occurs from person-to-person by direct contact or through the air.

In the past, chickenpox most commonly occurred in children between the ages of 5 and 9. In the US, however, there has been a shift, and now chickenpox is most common in children between the ages of 1 and 4. This difference can be linked to the proportion of children in this age group who are in daycare.

What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

Symptoms are usually mild among children, but may be life threatening to adults and people with impaired immune systems. The following are the most common symptoms of chickenpox. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • fatigue and irritability one to two days before the rash begins
  • itchy rash on the trunk, face, under the armpits, on the upper arms and legs, and inside the mouth
  • feeling ill
  • decreased appetite

The symptoms of chickenpox may resemble other skin problems. Always consult your physician for diagnosis.

How is chickenpox spread?

Once exposed, the incubation period is typically 14 to 16 days, but it may take as few as 10 and as many as 21 for the chickenpox to develop. Chickenpox is contagious for one to two days before the appearance of the rash and until the blisters have dried and become scabs. The blisters usually dry and become scabs within four to five days of the onset of the rash. Children should stay home and away from other children until all of the blisters have scabbed over.

Family members who have never had chickenpox have a 90 percent chance of becoming infected when another family member in the household is infected.

How is chickenpox diagnosed?

The rash of chickenpox is unique and therefore the diagnosis can usually be made on the appearance of the rash and a history of exposure.

Treatment for chickenpox:

Specific treatment for chickenpox will be determined by your physician based on:

  • your overall health and medical history
  • extent of the condition
  • your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the condition
  • your opinion or preference

Treatment for chickenpox may include:

  • acetaminophen (to reduce fever)
  • calamine lotion (to relieve itchiness)
  • antiviral drug acyclovir (for severe cases)
  • bedrest
  • increased fluid intake (to prevent dehydration)
  • cool baths with baking soda or Aveeno (to relieve itching)

Children should not scratch the blisters because it could lead to secondary bacterial infections. Keep fingernails short to decrease the likelihood of scratching.

Immunity from chickenpox:

Most people who have had chickenpox will be immune to the disease for the rest of their lives. However, the virus remains dormant in nerve tissue and may reactivate, resulting in herpes zoster (shingles) later in life. Sometimes a second case of chickenpox does occur. Blood tests can confirm immunity to chickenpox in people who are unsure if they have had the disease.

What complications are commonly associated with chickenpox?

Complications can occur from chickenpox. Those most susceptible to severe cases of chickenpox are adults and people with impaired immune systems. Complications may include:

  • secondary bacterial infections
  • pneumonia
  • encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
  • cerebellar ataxia (defective muscular coordination)
  • transverse myelitis (inflammation along the spinal cord)
  • Reye syndrome - a serious condition; a group of symptoms that may affect all major systems or organs. Children with varicella should not be given aspirin because administration of aspirin to children with varicella increases the risk of Reye syndrome.
  • death