What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is an extremely contagious infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. The most commonly recognized symptom of chickenpox is the development of multiple itchy blisters all over the body. The blisters typically start on the face and trunk before spreading. The fluid-filled blisters eventually break open, the fluid leaks out, and scabs form. Flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, cough, sneezing, and a general feeling of being ill can accompany the blisters.

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Before a vaccination for chickenpox was available, it was considered a rite of passage from childhood into adolescence; most school-age children caught it eventually. Once a person has had chickenpox, it is unlikely that it will recur. Because a vaccine is now available, children no longer need to risk the sometimes serious complications that can occur from chickenpox.

Chickenpox can be spread directly through person-to-person contact and indirectly through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Infectious droplets can also enter the air and spread from the skin rash. Symptoms commonly develop within 10 to 21 days of exposure, although the disease becomes contagious a day or two before the blisters appear and remains so until they have scabbed over.
Fortunately, the illness usually resolves on its own within a week to 10 days.

Treatment options include anti-itch creams, pain-relieving creams, and antihistamines. Analgesics such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help with discomfort. Aspirin should not be used in children because of the potential risk of developing Reye’s syndrome, which can be life threatening. Serious infections and complications can occur and are most common in infants, adolescents, adults, and people whose immune systems are weakened, such as those who have AIDS, are undergoing cancer treatment, or have had an organ transplant.

Rarely, the viral chickenpox infection can spread to other areas of the body, such as the brain or lungs, resulting in more severe illness and complications. It is also possible to develop secondary bacterial infections during chickenpox. These can affect the skin, lungs, blood, joints, and other areas of the body. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as high fever, confusion, lethargy, loss of consciousness, rapid breathing or shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, seizure, severe headache, severe vomiting or diarrhea, or reduced urine production.

Seek prompt medical care if your symptoms recur, are persistent, or otherwise cause you concern. Women who are pregnant and anyone with a weakened immune system should also seek care promptly. Newborn infants should also receive prompt care.

SYMPTOMS

What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

Flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, coughing, sneezing, and a general feeling of being ill may occur prior to the development of the hallmark itchy red blisters of chickenpox. Symptoms can vary in intensity among individuals.... Read more about chickenpoxsymptoms

CAUSES

What causes chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a highly contagious infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It can be spread by direct contact or through the air. Because chickenpox is often contagious before the telltale blisters appear and can be spread without direct contact, it is difficult to avoid exposure to it.... Read more about chickenpoxcauses

TREATMENTS

How is chickenpox treated?

The best way to treat chickenpox is to avoid getting it in the first place. A safe and effective vaccine is available against the varicella-zoster virus. Varicella-zoster vaccination can be given by itself or in combination with the measles-mumps-rubella vaccination, also known as the MMR.... Read more about chickenpoxtreatments

Medical Reviewer: All content has been reviewed by board-certified physicians under the direction of Rich Klasco, M.D., FACEP. Last Annual Review Date: May 2, 2011 Copyright: © Copyright 2011 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Infections and Contagious Diseases


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