Chickenpox is a highly contagious illness that is common in children, particularly those under age 12. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV) also known as human herpes virus 3 (HHV-3), one of the eight herpes viruses known to affect humans. The infections is characterized by a fever and itchy, red spots usually appearing on the chest and stomach first, then appearing in crops over the entire body. The red spots turn into small blisters that dry up and form scabs over about a week. Symptoms usually go away without treatment, but because the infection is very contagious, an infected child should stay home and rest until the symptoms are gone.
How is it spread?
Chickenpox spreads easily. It is most contagious the day before the rash appears.
It spreads from person to person through direct contact with the virus. You can get chickenpox if you touch a blister, or the liquid from a blister. You can also get chickenpox if you touch the spit of a person who has chickenpox. The virus enters the body by the nose or mouth and can make you sick also.
The only way to stop the spread of the virus from person to person is to prevent infected people from sharing the same room or house, which isn't practical. Chickenpox cannot be spread through indirect contact.
You may notice several symptoms before the typical chickenpox rash appears. Known as prodromal, or early symptoms, they include fever, a vague feeling of sickness, or decreased appetite. Within a few days, a rash appears. The rash looks like small red pimples or blisters.
Chickenpox does not infect chickens (humans are the only animal infected by the VZV virus), but it was felt that the red pimples resembled chick peas, hence the name "chickenpox."
Symptoms of chickenpox
Who is at risk of complications?
Those in the at-risk group who are exposed to the varicella-zoster virus can be given an injection of varicella-zoster-immunoglobin to boost their immunity. In some countries, vaccination against chickenpox is available.
Chickenpox is contagious from about 2 days before the rash appears and lasts until all the blisters are crusted over. A child with chickenpox should be kept out of school until all blisters have dried, usually about 1 week. If you're unsure about whether your child is ready to return to school, ask your doctor.
Chickenpox is very contagious - most kids with a sibling who's been infected will get it as well, showing symptoms about 2 weeks after the first child does. To help keep the virus from spreading, make sure your kids wash their hands frequently, particularly before eating and after using the bathroom. And keep a child with chickenpox away from unvaccinated siblings as much as possible.
When to seek Medical Advice
Although most cases of chickenpox heal without complications, sometimes medical attention is required. Call the doctor if any of the following conditions develop:
Most cases of chickenpox can be managed at home. Chickenpox rash tends to be extremely itchy. Several treatments can be used at home to help a child feel better.
Trimming fingernails can help prevent infection from scratching the blisters. If you have a small infant with chickenpox, cover the child's hands with mittens to minimize scratching.
Occasionally a child will develop blisters in the mouth, making eating or drinking painful. A person must continue to drink fluids to prevent dehydration. To alleviate pain, provide cold fluids (ice pops are one suggestion) and soft bland foods.
Keep children at home from school and daycare until all blisters have crusted. A child with chickenpox is extremely contagious until the last crop of blisters has crusted.