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Chickenpox (Varicella)


Topic Overview

What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox (varicella) is a common illness that causes an itchy rash and red spots or blisters (pox) all over the body. It is most common in children. But most people will get chickenpox at some point in their lives if they haven't had the chickenpox vaccine.

Chickenpox can cause problems for pregnant women, newborns, teens and adults, and people who have immune system problems that make it hard for the body to fight infection. Chickenpox usually isn't a serious health problem in healthy children. But a child with chickenpox needs to stay home from school. And you may need to miss work in order to care for your child.

After you have had chickenpox, you aren't likely to get it again. But the virus stays in your body long after you get over the illness. If the virus becomes active again, it can cause a painful viral infection called shingles.

What causes chickenpox, and how is it spread?

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It can spread easily. You can get it from an infected person who sneezes, coughs, or shares food or drinks. You can also get it if you touch the fluid from a chickenpox blister.

A person who has chickenpox can spread the virus even before he or she has any symptoms. Chickenpox is most easily spread from 2 to 3 days before the rash appears until all the blisters have crusted over.

You are at risk for chickenpox if you have never had the illness and haven't had the chickenpox vaccine. If someone you live with gets chickenpox, your risk is even higher because of the close contact.

What are the symptoms?

The first symptoms of chickenpox usually develop about 14 to 16 days after contact with a person infected with the virus. Most people feel sick and have a fever, a decreased appetite, a headache, a cough, and a sore throat. The itchy chickenpox rashClick here to see an illustration. usually appears about 1 or 2 days after the first symptoms start.

After a chickenpox red spot appears, it usually takes about 1 or 2 days for the spot to go through all its stages. This includes blistering, bursting, drying, and crusting over. New red spots will appear every day for up to 5 to 7 days.

It usually takes about 10 days after the first symptoms before all blisters have crusted over. This is when the person with chickenpox can return to day care, school, or work.

How is chickenpox diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and will examine you. This usually gives your doctor enough information to find out if you have chickenpox.

A healthy child with chickenpox symptoms may not need to visit a doctor. You may be able to describe your child's symptoms to the doctor over the phone.

Teenagers, adults, pregnant women, and people with health problems need to see a doctor for chickenpox. This is especially important for pregnant women, since chickenpox during early pregnancy can cause birth defects.

How is it treated?

Most healthy children and adults need only home treatment for chickenpox. Home treatment includes resting and taking medicines to reduce fever and itching. You also can soak in oatmeal baths to help with itching.

People with long-term diseases or other health problems may need more treatment for chickenpox. They may need immunoglobulin treatment (IG) or antiviral medicine. Your doctor can give you these soon after you are exposed to the virus to help you feel better sooner.

How can you prevent chickenpox?

You can prevent chickenpox with the chickenpox vaccine. Children get the chickenpox vaccine as part of their routine immunizations.

If you have been around a person who has the virus and you have not had chickenpox or the vaccine, you still may be able to prevent the illness. Get a shot of chickenpox antibodies (immunoglobulin) or the vaccine right away.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about chickenpox:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Taking care of yourself:

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