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.
- It can also spread through the air, if you are near someone with chickenpox who is coughing or sneezing.
- A pregnant woman with chickenpox can pass it on to her baby before birth.
- Mothers with chickenpox can also give it to their newborn babies after birth.
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
- A rash that usually begins on the body and face and later often spreads to the scalp and limbs.
- It may also spread to the mucous membranes especially in the mouth and on the genitals.
- The rash is often itchy.
- It begins as small red spots which develop into blisters in a couple of hours.
- After one or two days, the blisters turn into scabs.
- New blisters may appear after three to six days.
- The number of blisters differs greatly from one person to another.
- The infected person may run a temperature.
- These symptoms are mild in young children.
- Chickenpox lasts 7 to 10 days in children and longer in adults.
- Adults can feel very ill and take longer to recover. They are also more likely than children to suffer complications.
Who is at risk of complications?
- Pregnant women who have not had chickenpox.
- People with a weak immune system, such as those with acute or chronic leukaemia or HIV.
- Patients taking medicine to suppress their immune system, such as long-term oral corticosteroids.
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:
- Fever higher than 103?F
- A rash involving an eye
- Continued dehydration, vomiting, or decreased fluid intake
- Uncertainty of diagnosis or what medication to give
- Blisters leak a thick, yellow or green fluid.
- Areas around a blister are red, increasingly painful, or swollen, or have red streaking extending from the site.
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.
- You can give cool-water baths every 3-4 hours, adding baking soda to the water to calm itching.
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.
- Never give aspirin to a child because aspirin has been associated with Reye syndrome.
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.
- Avoid any foods that are spicy, hot, or acidic (for instance, orange juice).
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.