HealthSheets™


Understanding Chickenpox

Chickenpox is a viral illness that spreads very easily from person to person. Most children used to get chickenpox from another infected person.  But a vaccine became available in 1995 that can prevent chickenpox. Most people who have had chickenpox once don’t get it again. That’s because they become immune to the virus.  But the virus stays in the body and can reappear later in life as shingles. Shingles causes a painful skin rash. A vaccine is available to prevent shingles.

What causes chickenpox ?

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It can easily spread to people who have not had chickenpox and have not been vaccinated.  The virus spreads when:

  • You breathe in the virus from the air. This can happen when someone with chickenpox or shingles sneezes or coughs near you.

  • You get the virus on your hands. This can happen if you touch someone’s chickenpox or shingles blisters.

Someone with chickenpox is contagious even before symptoms appear. This is partly why chickenpox spreads so easily.

What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

Chickenpox is often a mild illness, especially in young children. But it can be serious enough to cause severe illness or even death. This is especially true in elderly adults.

Chickenpox often starts with symptoms that feel like the flu. These symptoms can include:

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Sore throat

  • Feeling tired or unwell

  • Loss of appetite

A day or two later, red spots appear on your body. This rash is usually itchy. The red spots turn into small blisters. Then they scab over and go away. Blisters may also appear in your mouth or throat. A chickenpox rash usually goes away within 2 weeks.

How is chickenpox treated?

Treatment for most children with chickenpox focuses on relieving symptoms. These treatments may include:

  • Over-the-counter pain medicines, such as acetaminophen. These can help with discomfort, especially if blisters are inside the mouth. Never give aspirin to anyone younger than 18 years of age who is ill with a viral infection or fever. It may cause severe liver or brain damage.

  • Over-the-counter antihistamine medicines, such as diphenhydramine or loratadine. These can help relieve itching.

  • Skin treatments to relieve itching. These include calamine lotion and oatmeal baths.

Your doctor will not give you antibiotics for chickenpox. They do not make the illness shorter or relieve symptoms. Taking antibiotics when they aren’t needed can make them work less well when they are needed for another illness

Follow all directions for using medicines, especially when giving them to children. Contact your healthcare provider if you have any questions about using medicines safely.

Having chickenpox virus is risky for pregnant women, babies, children older than 12, adults, and people with a weak immune system. For these people, treatment is aimed at helping the body fight the virus. Their treatment is likely to include antiviral medicine. This can help shorten the illness or make it less severe. This is especially true if you take this medicine very early in the illness.   

How can I prevent chickenpox?

The best way to prevent the spread of chickenpox is to make sure that you and your family members are immune to it.

  • Talk with your healthcare provider about getting the vaccine if you did not have chickenpox as a child, or you have not had the vaccine.

  • Make sure your children have all their vaccines on schedule.

  • Ask your healthcare provider to vaccinate you for chickenpox if you have been exposed to the virus. This can prevent illness or make it less severe.

What are the possible complications of chickenpox?

Complications of the chickenpox include:

  • Skin infection. This can happen when scratching allows bacteria to get into the blisters.

  • Swelling of the brain or spinal cord. This can cause severe headache, unsteady movements, or severe sleepiness.

  • Lung infection (pneumonia). This causes a cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain.

 

When should I to call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of these:

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed

  • Any of the complications listed above

  • You cannot eat or drink because of painful sores or you cannot retain fluids

  • You don’t get better after 5 to 7 days

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