Chickenpox, also called varicella, is a common childhood infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. Read about its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options.
Chickenpox is a common childhood viral disease that develops in persons not previously exposed to chickenpox, not vaccinated against chickenpox, and in recent contact with persons having chickenpox or shingles. Although it is more common in children from 5 to 12 years of age, it can occur in any age group, including adults.
A vaccine is available, which protects children, and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends routine vaccination for chickenpox. This vaccine is a safe and effective method to prevent chickenpox.
It is an infection that classically presents with rashes and fever. It is caused by a virus called varicella-zoster. This infection has an incubation period of seven to 21 days, meaning it may take up to those many days for symptoms to appear after the virus enters the body.
Direct spread through skin to skin contact, or contact with oral droplets during coughing and sneezing, or touching the fluid from the blisters. You get infected by coming in contact with an infected person. People who are infected can pass on the virus to those around them before a couple of days of blisters appearance, and until all blisters have crusted over.
Previous infection and vaccination reduce the risk of infection. A mother can also pass immunity from the virus to her newborn baby, which lasts for about three months.
The following factors can increase the risk of infection:
If you have never got chickenpox.
Recent contact with an infected person.
Children under 12 years of age.
Spending time in a child care facility.
Itchy rashes are the primary symptom. Other symptoms can appear earlier, even before the appearance of rashes:
Loss of appetite.
See the doctor if:
you are pregnant,
you have unexplained rashes with fever symptoms,
the rash spreads to the eyes,
the rash is tender and warm,
there is dizziness or breathing difficulty.
The rashes go through different stages, namely:
Papules - similar to pimples or insect bites, this is how they begin.
Vesicles - they progress to fluid-filled blisters that form raised bumps.
Crusts - once the blister breaks and the fluid oozes out, they dry out, forming scabs.
This process takes about a week. They usually start to appear in the head and trunk and then spread to the arms and legs. Since the new rashes develop in waves, there are multiple rashes all over the body, each at a different stage. Most cases of chickenpox get completely cured in a period of two weeks.
Indirect spread through contact with contaminated objects such as doorknob, clothing, and toys.
In case you develop unexplained rashes, you should consult a doctor immediately, even more so if the rash is accompanied by flu-like symptoms. As these are signs that your symptoms are due to a viral infection.
The doctor will diagnose chickenpox based on the physical examination of blisters. Or the doctor will send the fluid from the blisters to confirm the cause.
The prime requirement in home management will be to care for the itchy blisters.
Keep away from daycare, school or work in order to prevent spread and ensure rest and hydration.
A bath can be taken once a day with mild lukewarm water and no soap. Adding plain oatmeal to the bath has known to help soothe skin wounds.
Applying a non-scented lotion after a bath helps with the dryness, especially the rashes in the scabs stage.
Wearing loose cotton clothes is preferred.
Trim nails to prevent itching and secondary infection.
Put mittens or socks to the hands of young kids to prevent them from scratching.
Antivirals such as Acyclovir are prescribed if the patient is in the high-risk category. If not, the infection is allowed to run its course.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) for fever and pain.
Antihistamine to control the itching.
Lacto Calamine to soothe the skin.
A person with chickenpox usually recovers without any antiviral treatment. But antivirals are given in case of persons at high risk of complications such as:
Shingles: Once a person has chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus stays on in the nerve cells in a dormant state. If it gets reactivated later in life, it causes a nerve infection known as shingles.
Bacterial infection on skin: Since there are so many itchy open sores on the body, children tend to unknowingly scratch them, depositing the bacteria in their nails into the skin and thus causing a skin infection.
Sepsis: It can occur as a result of bacteria entering the bloodstream from the infected blisters.
Reyes's syndrome: It is a fatal complication associated with Aspirin intake during a chickenpox episode. Aspirin should NOT be given to children to treat fevers caused by varicella-zoster.
Pneumonia: This complication is more probable in pregnant women with chickenpox infection.
Other less common complications include dehydration, meningitis, and encephalitis.
Chickenpox during pregnancy is associated with a lot of serious risks. There is a higher risk of the mom developing pneumonia. She can pass on the infection to the fetus as well (known as fetal varicella syndrome), causing birth defects.
Varicella vaccines are available as a combination and are part of the regular immunization schedule regime in most countries. The first dose is given at 1 year and the second booster dose is given at 4 years. For unvaccinated adults in close contact with infected children or adults, the vaccine can be given any time required.
Your body will fight off this viral infection on its own in most cases, and you or your child can return to normal activities in a couple of weeks. You will become immune to this infection once the blisters heal, and the virus will stay dormant in your body. In some rare cases, it may cause re-infection. For more information, consult an infectious disease doctor online.
Chickenpox forms like a rash and begins as many tiny red bumps that look like insect bites or pimples. They grow in waves over two to four days, then develop as a thin-walled blister filled around with fluid. The blister walls break, leaving open sores, which finally crust over to become dry and brown scabs.
Chickenpox occurs due to transmission through the air. It Can also be transmitted from an infected patient to a healthy person by direct contact. Touching the wounds of the infected person can cause chickenpox. Show the affected person should stay isolated from others. Otherwise, exudates from the patient might affect others also.
Chickenpox usually lasts for seven to ten days in kids, and they can return to day-care or school after about a week. Adults may get sick for a longer duration. All the blisters should be scabbed before they go back.
Here are some user-friendly remedies that can help adults or children feel normal until the immune system defends off the virus.
- Serve sugar-free popsicles
- Apply calamine lotion.
- Wear mittens to prevent scratching.
- Bathe in oatmeal.
- Take baking soda baths.
- Give approved pain relievers.
- Use Chamomile compresses.
Several signs of chickenpox usually happen in the following order as listed below:
- A stomach-ache which lasts for one or two days.
- Headache, feeling tired, and fever.
- Bumps filled with a fluid that resembles like milky water.
- A skin rash that is very itchy and looks like many tiny blisters.
- Skin that looks blotchy.
- Scabs after the blisters break.
- Spots that fade away
Serious complexities from chickenpox include,
- Bacterial infections of the soft tissues and in children, including Group A streptococcal infections.
- Bleeding problems (hemorrhagic complications).
- Inflammation or disease of the brain (encephalitis, cerebellar ataxia).
In addition to vaccination, the spread of chickenpox can be prevented by washing your hands frequently and practicing good hygiene. Decrease exposure to people who are infected by chickenpox. If you are already affected by chickenpox, it is better to stay at home until all of the blisters have crusted and dried over.
By considering itching, take a lukewarm bath every couple of hours for the first few days. Add four tablespoons (two ounces) of baking soda, uncooked oats to a tub of water, corn-starch, or dry. Daily once, soap can be used in any one of the baths to vanish bacteria off the skin as possible. Gently pat your skin dry.
Sign and symptoms of chickenpox usually last for one to two weeks – for 3 to 5 days after the development of a first initial spotty rash, new spots can appear across the body. Over five to ten days after the rash first appears, all the red spots will dry out, crust over, and fall or get rid of naturally.
Mostly salty foods must be avoided during chickenpox. Salty foods may irritate a sore mouth, which is typical in chickenpox patients. Salty foods like vegetable-blend juices and chicken broth will not help the patient recover. Also, it may worsen issues such as dehydration.
Last reviewed at:
14 Jul 2020 - 5 min read
Query: Hello doctor, I felt the head of a young girl then hugged her for a second in the same room for three to four minutes. The next day, she broke out with chickenpox. What are my chances of getting the chickenpox and will getting the vaccine seven days later help me? Read Full »
Query: Hi doctor, I am 21 years old. My weight is 48 kg. I am 3 months 2 weeks pregnant. Now, I got chickenpox. I am very anxious about the adverse affect for my baby. I have visited a gynecologist and she suggested me to get abortion. Please clarify me the right step. Read Full »
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