Although many people think of chickenpox as a childhood disease, adults are still susceptible.
Also known as varicella, chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). It is most often recognized by a rash of itchy red blisters that appear on the face, neck, body, arms, and legs.
People who’ve had chickenpox typically have an immunity to the disease. So, if you had chickenpox as a child, it’s unlikely you will get chickenpox as an adult.
Chickenpox symptoms in adults typically resemble those in children, but they can become more severe. The disease progresses through symptoms that start one to three weeks after exposure to the virus, including:
- Flu-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, body aches, and headache. These symptoms typically start a day or two before a rash appears.
- Red spots appear on the face and chest, eventually spreading over the entire body. The red spots develop into itchy, fluid-filled blisters.
- Blisters weep, become sores, form crusts, and heal. As some of the blisters form crusts, it’s not unusual for more red spots to appear, for a total of 250 to 500 blisters.
For adults, new chickenpox spots often stop appearing by the seventh day. After 10–14 days, the blisters scab over. Once the blisters are scabbed over, you are no longer contagious.
As an adult, you are at risk of getting chickenpox if you didn’t have chickenpox as a child or haven’t had the chickenpox vaccine. Other risk factors include:
- living with unvaccinated children under the age of 12
- working in a school or child care space
- spending more than 15 minutes in a room with an infected person
- touching the rash of a person infected with chickenpox or shingles
- touching something recently used by an infected person such as clothing or bedding
You are at a higher level risk of experiencing complications from the disease if you are:
- a pregnant woman who hasn’t had chickenpox
- a person who is on medication that suppresses your immune system, such as chemotherapy
- a person whose immune system is impaired by another disease, such as HIV
- a person who is on steroid medications for another condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis
- a person with an immune system weakened by a previous organ or bone marrow transplant
Chickenpox is normally a mild, but uncomfortable, disease. However, this condition can lead to serious complications, hospitalization, and even death. Some complications include:
- bacterial infections of the skin, soft tissues, and/or bones
- sepsis, or a bacterial infection of the bloodstream
- bleeding problems
- encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain
- Reye’s syndrome, particularly if a child takes aspirin while infected with chickenpox
- toxic shock syndrome
Chickenpox and pregnancy
If a pregnant woman develops chickenpox, she and her unborn child are at risk for serious complications including:
- low birth weight
- birth defects such as abnormal limbs and brain development
- life-threatening infection
If you have chickenpox, your doctor will treat the symptoms and let the disease run its course. Recommendations typically include:
- calamine lotion and colloidal oatmeal baths to relieve itching
- a pain reliever to reduce fever
In certain circumstances, your doctor may also prescribe drugs such as acyclovir or valacyclovir to combat the virus and prevent complications.
There is a two-dose chickenpox vaccine (Varivax) that’s about 94 percent effective at preventing the disease for your lifetime. Adults who haven’t had chickenpox will get two doses about one month apart.
Your doctor may advise against receiving this vaccine if:
- you have a moderate or severe illness
- you plan to become pregnant in the next 30 days
- you have an allergy to any ingredient in the vaccine, such as gelatin or neomycin, or if you had a serious allergic reaction to a previous dose of the chickenpox vaccine
- you have undergone chemotherapy or radiation for cancer
- you have been taking steroid drugs
- you have a disease that compromises your immune system, such as HIV
- you recently received a blood transfusion
Are there risks with the chickenpox vaccine?
Your doctor will recommend the chickenpox vaccine if they believe the risks associated with it are much lower than the risks associated with the disease itself.
While some people may develop a low-grade fever or mild rash after being injected with the chickenpox vaccine, the most common side effects are redness, swelling, or soreness at the vaccination site. Other very rare severe side effects include:
- ataxia, or loss of balance
- nonfebrile seizures, or seizures without fever
If you’ve had chickenpox, then you still have the varicella-zoster virus in your nerve cells. It never goes away and it can lie dormant for years. Even though you are now most likely immune to reinfection from the chickenpox virus, you’re at risk of another disease: shingles.
Shingles is a painful viral infection that is characterized by a blistering skin rash that forms in a band in a specific location of the body. It most often appears on the left or right side of your torso, sometimes around one eye or on one side of the face or neck.
Shingles is most likely to appear in older adults and people with weakened immune systems. Two shingles vaccines — Zostavax and Shingrix — are available and many doctors recommend them for their patients who have had chickenpox and are age 50 and older.
Have you had chickenpox? Have you received the chickenpox vaccine? Answer those questions and follow these recommendations:
- If you’ve had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, you should be immune and have little to worry about regarding catching chickenpox.
- If you haven’t had chickenpox, you should talk to your doctor about getting the vaccine.
- If you’ve had chickenpox, you should talk to your doctor about the shingles vaccine, especially if you are over 50 years old.
- If you think you have chickenpox, contact your doctor for a full diagnosis and treatment recommendations.