Symptoms & Causes of Chickenpox

Chickenpox is a very contagious infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It mainly affects kids, but adults can get it, too. The telltale sign of chickenpox is a super-itchy skin rash with red blisters. Over the course of several days, the blisters pop and start to leak. Then they crust and scab over before finally healing.

Chickenpox, also called varicella, is characterized by itchy red blisters that appear all over the body. A virus causes this condition. It often affects children, and was so common it was considered a childhood rite of passage.

It’s very rare to have the chickenpox infection more than once. And since the chickenpox vaccine was introduced in the mid-1990s, cases have declined.

Chickenpox is an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It causes an itchy rash with small, fluid-filled blisters. Chickenpox is highly contagious to people who haven’t had the disease or been vaccinated against it. Today, a vaccine is available that protects children against chickenpox.

Symptoms

The itchy blister rash caused by chickenpox infection appears 10 to 21 days after exposure to the virus and usually lasts about five to 10 days. Other signs and symptoms, which may appear one to two days before the rash, include:

  • Headache
  • Tiredness and a general feeling of being unwell (malaise)
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite

Once the chickenpox rash appears, it goes through three phases:

  • Crusts and scabs, which cover the broken blisters and take several more days to heal
  • Small fluid-filled blisters (vesicles), which form in about one day and then break and leak
  • Raised pink or red bumps (papules), which break out over several days

New bumps continue to appear for several days, so you may have all three stages of the rash — bumps, blisters and scabbed lesions — at the same time. You can spread the virus to other people for up to 48 hours before the rash appears, and the virus remains contagious until all broken blisters have crusted over.

The disease is generally mild in healthy children. In severe cases, the rash can cover the entire body, and lesions may form in the throat, eyes, and mucous membranes of the urethra, anus and vagina.

What causes chickenpox?

Varicella-zoster virus (VZV) causes the chickenpox infection. Most cases occur through contact with an infected person. The virus is contagious to those around you for one to two days before your blisters appear. VZV remains contagious until all blisters have crusted over. The virus can spread through:

  • sneezing
  • contact with fluid from the blisters
  • saliva
  • coughing

How Is It Spread?

Very easily. You can get the virus by breathing in particles that come from chickenpox blisters or by touching something on which the particles landed.

Chickenpox is most contagious from 1 to 2 days before the rash appears until all the blisters are dried and crusted.

The best way to prevent the spread of the virus is to get the varicella vaccine. Children who’ve never had chickenpox should get two doses of the vaccine — the first at 12 to 15 months of age, and the second between ages 4 and 6. People over age 13 who’ve never been vaccinated should get two doses of the vaccine at least 28 days apart.

Who is at risk of developing the chicken pox?

Exposure to the virus through previous active infection or vaccination reduces risk. Immunity from the virus can be passed on from a mother to her newborn. Immunity lasts about three months from birth.

  • Anyone who has not been exposed may contract the virus. Risk increases under any of these conditions:
  • You are an adult living with children.
  • You have spent time in a school or child care facility.
  • Your immune system is compromised due to illness or medications.
  • You have had recent contact with an infected person.
  • You are under 12 years of age.

Complications

Adults have a higher risk for developing complications from chickenpox than children. Those with weakened immune systems due to cancer, HIV, or another condition are also at risk.

Once you’ve had chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus stays in your nerve cells for years. It can “wake up” and become active again years later. It can lead to shingles, a condition that causes painful blisters. Fortunately, there’s a vaccine for shingles. Doctors recommend it for adults over 60.

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How is chickenpox treated?

Most people diagnosed with chickenpox will be advised to manage their symptoms while they wait for the virus to pass through their system. Parents will be told to keep children out of school and day care to prevent spread of the virus. Infected adults will also need to stay home.

Your doctor may prescribe antihistamine medications or topical ointments, or you may purchase these over the counter to help relieve itching. You can also soothe itching skin by:

  • taking lukewarm baths
  • applying unscented lotion
  • wearing lightweight, soft clothing

Your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs if you experience complications from the virus or are at risk for adverse effects. People at high risk are usually the young, older adults, or those who have underlying medical issues. These antiviral drugs do not cure chickenpox. They make the symptoms less severe by slowing down viral activity. This will allow your body’s immune system to heal faster.

How can chickenpox be prevented?

The chickenpox vaccine prevents chickenpox in 98 percent of people who receive the two recommended doses. Your child should get the shot when they are between 12 and 15 months of age. Children get a booster between 4 and 6 years of age.

Older children and adults who haven’t been vaccinated or exposed may receive catch-up doses of the vaccine. As chickenpox tends to be more severe in older adults, people who haven’t been vaccinated may opt to get the shots later.

People unable to receive the vaccine can try to avoid the virus by limiting contact with infected people. But this can be difficult. Chickenpox can’t be identified by its blisters until it has already been spreadable to others for days.

Outlook

The body can resolve most cases of chickenpox on its own. People usually return to normal activities within one to two weeks of diagnosis.

Once chickenpox heals, most people become immune to the virus. It won’t be reactivated because VZV typically stays dormant in the body of a healthy person. In rare cases, it may re-emerge to cause another episode of chickenpox.

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