Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). It can cause an itchy, blister-like rash. The rash first appears on the chest, back, and face and then spreads over the entire body, causing multiple itchy blisters. Over several days, the blisters pop and start to leak. Then they crust and scab over before finally healing.
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:
An itchy rash is the most common symptom of chickenpox. The infection will have to be in your body for around 7 to 21 days before the inflammation and other symptoms develop. You start to be contagious to those around you up to 48 hours before the skin rash occurs. 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 inflammation goes through three phases before you recover. These include:
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:
Chickenpox is diagnosed based on a physical exam of blisters on you or your child’s body. Or, lab tests can confirm the cause of the blisters, such as blood tests or culture tests.
A blood test can be done to see if you have an active chickenpox infection or are immune to the disease. A small amount of blood is drawn and sent to a lab to check for varicella-zoster virus antibodies. The varicella-zoster virus is the virus that causes chickenpox. Sometimes a viral culture is done instead of a blood test.
Chickenpox must be differentiated from other diseases presenting diffuse papulovesicular rash in a febrile patient. The various conditions that should be distinguished from chickenpox include:
Emergency complications include:
When complications occur, they most often affect:
Women exposed during pregnancy may bear children with congenital disabilities, including:
Most people diagnosed with chickenpox will be advised to manage their symptoms while waiting for the virus to pass through their system. Parents will be told to keep children out of school and daycare to prevent the 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, and wearing lightweight and soft clothing.
Heat and sweat make you itch more. Use a cool, wet washcloth on super-itchy areas to calm your skin.
Drink lots of fluids to help your body rid itself of the virus faster. It’ll also keep you from getting dehydrated.
Use Acetaminophen (Tylenol) for Pain and Fever: If you or your child has a high fever or achiness caused by chickenpox, reach for the Tylenol. It can even help relieve pain associated with sores that develop on your skin or in your mouth. It’s safe for most people, including pregnant women and children over two months old.
Avoid anti-inflammatory painkillers like ibuprofen. If you have chickenpox, it can make you very ill. Never give aspirin to children under age 16. It can lead to a severe complication called Reye’s syndrome.
Don’t Scratch That Itch: Yes, it’s tempting. But scratching your rash can put you at risk for a bacterial skin infection. It could also cause scarring. Try these tips to calm your itchy skin:
Foods to Eat
Foods to Avoid
The Chickenpox vaccine prevents chickenpox in 98 percent of people who receive the two recommended doses. Your child should get the shot 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 avoid the virus by limiting contact with infected people.
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Reviewed and last updated: March 30, 2023