What is chickenpox?
Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus. It is most common in children. The classic symptom is an itchy rash of red spots all over the body. Your child could have as many as 250 to 500 red spots before the virus runs its course in 5 to 7 days.
Chickenpox used to be a common childhood disease. Then a vaccine was invented to prevent it. Now there are many fewer cases.
Symptoms of chickenpox
You may not know your child has chickenpox at first. They may have flu-like symptoms to start off with. These include:
- poor appetite
- sore throat
Several days later, the rash appears. It usually starts on the child’s stomach, back, and face before spreading to his or her entire body. In more severe cases, the spots can move inside your child’s throat, eyes, bottom, and vagina. The spots begin as raised bumps, turn into fluid-filled blisters, and end as scabs. They are extremely itchy. Scratching causes the blisters to break open. This can lead to infection and scars.
Most cases of chickenpox are mild. Symptoms last 5 to 7 days.
What causes chickenpox?
Chickenpox is caused by a virus called the varicella-zoster virus. You can catch it by coming in contact with someone who is infected. It is spread through touching or breathing in virus particles that have come from the blisters.
A person with chickenpox is contagious from 1 to 2 days before they develop the rash. The can pass on the disease until all of their blisters have formed scabs. This usually takes 5 to 7 days.
The varicella-zoster virus also causes a disease called shingles. This is a painful skin condition that lays dormant until you get older. It also appears as an itchy, sore rash with blisters. If you have never had chickenpox or received the chickenpox vaccine, you can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles.
How is chickenpox diagnosed?
Your doctor can generally tell if the rash is chickenpox just by looking at it. He or she may check for other flu-like symptoms. They also can test blood or test a small sample from one of the blisters.
You should call your doctor if your child:
- Has difficulty breathing.
- Has a fever that lasts for more than 4 days or spikes beyond 102°.
- Has blisters with yellow fluid coming out from the sores.
- Has blisters that feel warm or look swollen.
- Has a severe headache.
- Is unusually sleepy or has difficulty waking up.
- Is bothered by bright lights.
- Has trouble walking.
- Is confused.
- Is vomiting, is extremely nauseated, or has a stiff neck.
Can chickenpox be prevented or avoided?
The best way to prevent chickenpox is to get the vaccine. Children should receive the vaccination when they are 12 to 15 months old. They should get a booster vaccination between ages 4 and 6. The vaccine is 99 percent effective in protecting against the virus. On rare occasions, children who get the vaccine may still get chickenpox. But their case is usually milder than if they hadn’t gotten the vaccine.
Chickenpox is an airborne virus. It can also be spread through mucus, saliva, or by touching the fluid from the blisters. If you know a child who has chickenpox or was recently exposed to the virus, keep your child away from that friend or classmate. Keep your child home once you know he or she has chickenpox. This minimizes spreading it to others.
Adults who escaped chickenpox as a child, but have not gotten the vaccine, are at risk for getting the virus. Getting chickenpox puts you at a higher risk of getting shingles. If you’ve never had chickenpox or the vaccine, talk to your doctor. You can still get vaccinated, even as an adult.
A virus causes chickenpox. That means antibiotics won’t help in treating it. Doctors might prescribe an antibiotic if the spots become infected from scratching. This will depend on the age and health of your child. It will also depend on how bad the chickenpox have become in a 5-to-7-day period.
Some people with chickenpox may need antiviral medicine. Your doctor may recommend antiviral medicine if you:
- Are over the age of 12.
- Have chronic skin or lung disease.
- Receive steroid therapy.
- Are pregnant.
In most cases, the best your doctor can offer is solutions to treat the symptoms. For itching, your doctor may suggest applying a cool, wet cloth to the blisters. Do not rub the sores or they will break open. Cool or lukewarm baths also may help. Many people find that lotions and bathing products made with oatmeal help relieve itching. Using calamine lotion on areas below the face also can provide relief from itching.
If your child has mouth blisters, avoid causing the blisters to break open. Give him or her foods and drinks that are cold, soft, and bland. Topical pain relief creams approved by your doctor also can help. Keeping your child from scratching the sores will be a big challenge. Have them wear mittens or socks on their hands. This will reduce the damage from scratching with their fingernails.
If your child is experiencing pain, you can give them over-the-counter pain medicine. Do not give your child aspirin. It can cause Reye syndrome, which can cause liver failure and death. Acetaminophen (1 brand name: Tylenol) is an acceptable oral pain relief medication.
Living with chickenpox
For the short time you have chickenpox, there’s little you can do other than make yourself as comfortable as possible. Follow the guidelines in the treatment section. Limit your exposure to others.
In most cases, once you have chickenpox, you will not have it again in your lifetime. Rarely, someone may get it more than once.
Some people are at higher risk of developing serious complications from chickenpox. They include those who:
- Are pregnant.
- Have a weakened immune system.
- Are under 1 year old.
- Are over 12 years old.
Complications can include:
- Infection or inflammation of the brain
- Bleeding problems
- Infection of the blood (sepsis)
- Bacterial infections of the skin
Some people get so sick from chickenpox that they need to stay in the hospital. In rare cases, chickenpox can cause death.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How do I keep myself and others from catching chickenpox if we haven’t had a vaccine or the virus?
- Can a hot shower or bath irritate the sores?
- Can you catch chickenpox more than once?
- Who should not receive the chickenpox vaccine?
- What should I do if I think my child has been exposed to chickenpox?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.