Chickenpox is a contagious infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It causes an itchy rash with small, fluid-filled blisters. Although uncomfortable, most people recover within 1-2 weeks. It is highly contagious to those who haven’t had the disease or been vaccinated against it.
Chickenpox mainly affects kids but adults can get it too. The blister-like rash first appears on the face and trunk and then spreads throughout the body. The infection spreads in a similar way to colds and flu. Although it is not a life-threatening infection, complications can arise.
Before the rashes appear, a person usually has:
- a general feeling of being unwell
- fever, which is usually worse in adults than children
- aching muscles
- loss of appetite
The severity of the rashes varies from a few spots to a rash that covers the entire body. There will also be spots, which develop in clusters and are generally found on the face, limbs, chest, and stomach. Blisters can develop on top of the spots which can become very itchy. Within about 48 hours, the blisters cloud over and start drying out and develop a crust, which then falls off on its own within about 10 days.
The infection generally resolves within a week or two without treatment. There is no cure, but there is a vaccine to prevent it. Some doctors may prescribe medication or advise on how to reduce the itchiness and discomfort and how to prevent the infection from spreading to other people. For the pain and fever, acetaminophen may help. Because of fever, a person with chickenpox may experience dehydration so it is important to drink plenty of fluids. A person with chickenpox may also experience mouth soreness. Sugar-free popsicles may help ease the symptoms especially if there are sore spots in the mouth.
An antiviral medication may be prescribed during pregnancy, for adults who get an early diagnosis, in newborn babies, and those with a weakened immune system.
The best way to prevent the spread of the virus is to get the varicella vaccine.
If you haven’t been vaccinated for chickenpox, there are further precautions you should take:
- Stay away from people who are sick with chickenpox or shingles if possible
- Wear disposable, non-latex gloves when touching objects or surfaces that may have been exposed to the virus
- Consider setting up a cozy “sick room” for a family member who has chickenpox, a place where she can rest without feeling too isolated from everyone else
- Never share cups, dishes, and utensils with a sick family member
- Wash any items that came into contact with a sick family member with hot, soapy water
- Disinfect non-porous surfaces with a product approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for killing microbes such as viruses (chlorine bleach will do, but there are also non-bleach alternatives that are safer)