What is chickenpox?
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.
An itchy rash is the most common symptom of chickenpox. The infection will have to be in your body for around seven to 21 days before the rash and other symptoms develop. You start to be contagious to those around you up to 48 hours before the skin rash starts to occur.
The non-rash symptoms may last a few days and include:
One or two days after you experience these symptoms, the classic rash will begin to develop. The rash goes through three phases before you recover. These include:
- You develop red or pink bumps all over your body.
- The bumps become blisters filled with fluid that leaks.
- The bumps become crusty, scab over, and begin to heal.
The bumps on your body will not all be in the same phase at the same time. New bumps will continuously appear throughout your infection. The rash may be very itchy, especially before it scabs over with a crust.
You are still contagious until all the blisters on your body have scabbed over. The crusty scabbed areas eventually fall off. It takes seven to 14 days to disappear completely.
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:
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 have had recent contact with an infected person.
- You are under 12 years of age.
- 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 should always call your doctor any time you develop an unexplained rash, especially if it’s accompanied by cold symptoms or fever. One of several viruses or infections could be affecting you. Tell your doctor right away if you are pregnant and have been exposed to chickenpox.
You doctor may be able to diagnose chickenpox based on a physical exam of blisters on you or your child’s body. Or, lab tests can confirm the cause of the blisters.
Call your doctor right away if:
- The rash spreads to your eyes.
- The rash is very red, tender, and warm (signs of a secondary bacterial infection).
- The rash is accompanied by dizziness or shortness of breath.
When complications occur, they most often affect:
- older adults
- people with weak immune systems
- pregnant women
These groups may also contract VZV pneumonia or bacterial infections of the skin, joints, or bones.
Women exposed during pregnancy may bear children with birth defects, including:
- poor growth
- small head size
- eye problems
- intellectual disabilities
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.
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.
It is more common for shingles, a separate disorder also triggered by VZV, to occur later during adulthood. If a person’s immune system is temporarily weakened, VZV may reactivate in the form of shingles. This usually occurs due to advanced age or having a debilitating illness.
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.