Chickenpox (varicella) is a viral infection that causes an itchy, blister-like rash. Chickenpox is highly contagious to people who haven't had the disease nor been vaccinated against it. Before routine chickenpox vaccination, virtually all people had been infected by the time they reached adulthood, sometimes with serious complications. Today, the number of cases and hospitalizations is down dramatically.
For most people, chickenpox is a mild disease. Still, it's better to get vaccinated. The chickenpox vaccine is a safe, effective way to prevent chickenpox and its possible complications.
Chickenpox infection usually lasts about five to 10 days. The rash is the telltale indication of chickenpox. Other signs and symptoms, which may appear one to two days before the rash, include:
Loss of appetite
Tiredness and a general feeling of being unwell (malaise)
Once the chickenpox rash appears, it goes through three phases:
Raised pink or red bumps (papules), which break out over several days
Fluid-filled blisters (vesicles), forming from the raised bumps over about one day before breaking and leaking
Crusts and scabs, which cover the broken blisters and take several more days to heal
New bumps continue to appear for several days. As a result, you may have all three stages of the rash — bumps, blisters and scabbed lesions — at the same time on the second day of the rash. Once infected, you can spread the virus for up to 48 hours before the rash appears, and you remain contagious until all spots crust over.
The disease is generally mild in healthy children. In severe cases, the rash can spread to cover the entire body, and lesions may form in the throat, eyes and mucous membranes of the urethra, anus and vagina. New spots continue to appear for several days.
When to see a doctor
If you suspect that you or your child has chickenpox, consult your doctor. He or she usually can diagnose chickenpox by examining the rash and by noting the presence of accompanying symptoms. Your doctor can also prescribe medications to lessen the severity of chickenpox and treat complications, if necessary. Be sure to call ahead for an appointment and mention you think you or your child has chickenpox, to avoid waiting and possibly infecting others in a waiting room.
Also, be sure to let your doctor know if any of these complications occur:
The rash spreads to one or both eyes.
The rash gets very red, warm or tender, indicating a possible secondary bacterial skin infection.
The rash is accompanied by dizziness, disorientation, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, tremors, loss of muscle coordination, worsening cough, vomiting, stiff neck or a fever higher than 103 F (39.4 C).
Anyone in the household is immune deficient or younger than 6 months old.
Treatment & Drugs
In otherwise healthy children, chickenpox typically requires no medical treatment. Your doctor may prescribe an antihistamine to relieve itching. But for the most part, the disease is allowed to run its course.
If you're at high risk of complications
For people who have a high risk of complications from chickenpox, doctors sometimes prescribe medications to shorten the duration of the infection and to help reduce the risk of complications.
If you or your child falls into a high-risk group, your doctor may suggest an antiviral drug such as acyclovir (Zovirax) or another drug called immune globulin intravenous (IGIV). These medications may lessen the severity of the disease when given within 24 hours after the rash first appears. Other antiviral drugs, such as valacyclovir (Valtrex) and famciclovir (Famvir), also may lessen the severity of the disease, but they have been approved for use only in adults. In some cases, your doctor may recommend getting the chickenpox vaccine after exposure to the virus. This can prevent the disease or lessen its severity.
Don't give anyone with chickenpox — child or adult — any medicine containing aspirin because this combination has been associated with a condition called Reye's syndrome.
If complications do develop, your doctor will determine the appropriate treatment. Treatment for skin infections and pneumonia may be with antibiotics. Treatment for encephalitis is usually with antiviral drugs. Hospitalization may be necessary.
Lifestyle & Home Remedies
To help ease the symptoms of an uncomplicated case of chickenpox, follow these self-care measures.
Scratching can cause scarring, slow healing and increase the risk that the sores will become infected. If your child can't stop scratching:
Put gloves on his or her hands, especially at night
Trim his or her fingernails
Relieve the itch and other symptoms
The chickenpox rash can be very itchy, and broken vesicles sometimes sting. These discomforts, along with fever, headache and fatigue, can make anyone miserable. For relief, try:
A cool bath with added baking soda, uncooked oatmeal or colloidal oatmeal — a finely ground oatmeal that is made for soaking.
Calamine lotion dabbed on the spots.
A soft, bland diet if chickenpox sores develop in the mouth.
Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl, others) for itching. Check with your doctor to make sure your child can safely take antihistamines.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) for a mild fever.
Don't give aspirin to anyone with chickenpox because it can lead to a serious condition called Reye's syndrome. And don't treat a high fever without consulting your doctor.