What exactly is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a very contagious disease. It can be especially serious for babies, adults, and people with weakened immune systems. The varicella-zoster virus (VZV) causes chickenpox. The telltale symptom of chickenpox is a blisterlike rash that first usually appears on the stomach, back, and face.

The rash typically spreads over the whole body, causing 250 to 500 fluid-filled blisters. They then break open, turning into sores that eventually scab over. The rash can be incredibly itchy and is often accompanied by fatigue, headache, and fever.

Though uncommon, you can get chickenpox more than once. The majority of people who have had chickenpox will have immunity from it for the remainder of their lives.

You may be susceptible to the chickenpox virus twice if:

  • You had your first case of chickenpox when you were less than 6 months old.
  • Your first case of chickenpox was extremely mild.
  • You have a weakened immune system.

In some cases, a person who appears to be developing chickenpox for the second time is actually having their first case of chickenpox. Some rashes can mimic chickenpox. It may be that that person actually never had chickenpox before, but instead received a misdiagnosis.

The chickenpox virus

You may not get chickenpox twice, but VZV could make you sick twice. Once you’ve had chickenpox, the virus remains inactive in your nerve tissue. Although it’s unlikely you will get chickenpox again, the virus may reactivate later in life and cause a related condition called shingles.

Shingles

Shingles is a painful rash of blisters. The rash develops on one side of the face or body and typically lasts about three weeks. The blisters usually scab over in a week or two.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one-third of the U.S. population will get shingles. Shingles may lead to significant complications, but this is rare.

How do you get chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease that transmits easily from person to person. Breathing the air a person with chickenpox exhales, coughs, or sneezes can expose you to it. Chickenpox can also spread through contact with the fluid in the rash blisters.

If you have chickenpox, you’ll be infectious for about two days before the rash develops. You’ll stay infectious until the blisters fully crust over.

You can contract chickenpox through contact with a person who actively has it, such as by:

  • being in the room with them for at least 15 minutes
  • touching their blisters
  • touching items that have been recently contaminated with their breath or fluid from their blisters

If you’re susceptible to chickenpox, it’s possible to contract it if you touch the rash of a person with shingles.

How do you know you have chickenpox?

If you come in direct contact with a person who has chickenpox and you haven’t received the chickenpox vaccine or had the disease itself, there’s a good chance you’ll contract it.

The rash associated with chickenpox is often recognizable, especially by trained medical professionals. But as chickenpox becomes less common due to the success of the vaccine, younger doctors may not be as familiar with the rash. Symptoms other than the telltale rash include:

What’s the treatment for chickenpox?

If you’re worried that you or your child has chickenpox, call your doctor. If it’s not a serious case, they’ll probably recommend treating the symptoms while waiting for the disease to run its course. Treatment suggestions might include:

  • Nonaspirin pain medication like acetaminophen (Tylenol) can relieve fever.
  • Over-the-counter topical lotions such as calamine lotion can relieve itching.
WarningChildren and anyone under the age of 18 should never take aspirin for an illness. This is because of the risk of a rare, but fatal, condition called Reye’s syndrome.

If your doctor feels that you or your child are likely to develop a more serious case, they may recommend an antiviral medication such as acyclovir (Zovirax).

Vaccine

Doctors also recommend the chickenpox vaccine. According to Vaccines.gov, two doses of the chickenpox vaccine are about 94 percent effective at preventing chickenpox. People who are vaccinated but still get the disease usually experience a much milder version.

What’s the outlook?

It’s highly unlikely that you’ll have chickenpox more than once. And it’s very unusual for people who have had the chickenpox vaccine to contract the virus.

If you think that you or your child has contracted the virus, visit your doctor. They can usually determine the presence of chickenpox by inspecting the rash and checking for other symptoms. In the rare case that the diagnosis is unclear, other tests can be done if needed.