Chickenpox is a virus that spreads easily to others. It creates an itchy rash. The infection can also cause serious complications in some people.
Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). It spreads from person to person through:
- Airborne droplets of moisture containing the VZV virus
- Direct contact with fluid from a chickenpox or zoster rash
A pregnant mother can transmit the virus to a fetus.
Chickenpox is more common in children under 10 years old. Other factors that may increase your chance of chickenpox include:
- Close contact with an infected person, unless you have been vaccinated or have already had chickenpox
- Conditions or medications that suppress your immune system, such as cancer , HIV infection, an organ transplant, or high-dose steroid use
- Time of year—late winter, early spring
Symptoms break out about 10-21 days after contact. They are more severe in adults than they are in children.
Initial symptoms include:
- Mild headache
- Moderate fever
- Sore throat
- Severe itch
- Lack of appetite
- General feeling of discomfort
- Abdominal pain
The rash appears within 1-2 days after the first symptoms. The rash:
Begins with small, flat, red spots:
- Spots become raised and form a round, intensely itchy, fluid-filled blister
- Blisters develop in clusters, with new clusters forming over 5-6 days
- Usually develops into patches on the skin above the waist, including the scalp
- May also appear on the eyelids, in the mouth, upper airway, voice box, or on the genitals
- Typically crusts over by day 6 or 7 and disappears within 3 weeks
You will be asked your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Diagnosis is usually based on the rash and your age. Blood and lab tests to identify the virus are rarely needed.
Chickenpox is mild in most people. It will naturally run its course. In these cases, treatment focuses on relieving the symptoms.
To Reduce Itching
It may be difficult to avoid scratching. Itchiness can be reduced with:
- Wet compresses
- Over-the-counter anti-itch creams or lotions
- Oatmeal baths
- Oral antihistamine medication
Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving your child aspirin.
Antibiotics cannot cure infections caused by a virus. However, they may be given if the rash becomes infected with bacteria.
The course, severity, and duration of the infection may be reduced by antiviral medications.
They are often used in:
- Adolescents, adults, and individuals with weak immune systems
- Individuals with chronic skin or lung diseases and those taking aspirin or steroids
Avoid contact with anyone who has chickenpox. This is important if you have not been vaccinated against the infection.
Vaccination in Children
There is a catch-up schedule if your child has missed the routine injections.
Vaccination in Adults
Adults who have never had chickenpox or received the varicella vaccine should be vaccinated.
If you or your child has not been vaccinated, but are exposed to chickenpox, a vaccine given right away may help lessen the severity of the infection, or prevent the infection.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children
College of Family Physicians of Canada
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10/14/2008 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Macartney K, McIntryre P. Vaccines for post-exposure prophylaxis against varicella (chickenpox) in children and adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008;(3):CD001833.
Last reviewed May 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.