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Chickenpox

By Gregory Penny, M.D.

Mother inspecting her daughter for chickenpox rash

​Varicella, or chickenpox, is a virus that is known for its telltale rash. The rash causes itchy, red blisters to emerge all over the body. Chickenpox is highly contagious. It's important to know the signs of infection and how to prevent the disease from spreading.

How Chickenpox Spreads

Chickenpox is contagious approximately two days before the rash appears until the blisters have crusted over. This is usually 5-7 days.

The virus is spread from person to person in two ways:

  • Through the air, via particles released from an infected individual's mouth while talking, coughing or sneezing
  • Through direct contact with an infected individual's saliva, mucus or broken blisters.

A person who has a secondary varicella infection, also known as shingles, can spread the virus to a person who has not had the chickenpox before. The newly infected individual will have the symptoms of chickenpox – not shingles.

Chickenpox Symptoms

The most recognizable symptom of chickenpox is the rash that covers the body in itchy, red bumps. It first appears on the face and back or abdomen, and then it spreads to all areas of the body. The rash typically goes through three stages.

  1. Red bumps surface. The bumps look similar to pimples or insect bites.
  2. The bumps become fluid-filled blisters.
  3. The blisters break and turn into brown scabs.

Other symptoms of chickenpox include:

  • Fever (101 – 102 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Sore throat
  • Mild headache
  • Stomachache
  • Loss of appetite

Chickenpox Treatment

Because chickenpox is a virus, no antibiotic can be prescribed to heal it. For most children, the best way to approach treatment is to manage discomfort to avoid itching, which can lead to infection.

The following tactics may help relieve itchiness caused by the chickenpox rash.

  • Cool wet compress
  • Cool or lukewarm bath every three to four hours – If desired, oatmeal bath products can be added.
  • Calamine lotion – Do not use calamine lotion on the face.

If the rash spreads to areas such as the mouth or genitals, your child may benefit from additional steps to manage the discomfort. Consult with your physician.

Prevent Chickenpox Blisters from Becoming Infected

  • Be sure that your child pats and does not rub when drying off after a bath or washing hands
  • Keep your child's fingernails short and clean
  • Have your child wear socks or mittens on the hands if he or she can't keep from itching

If your child is at risk for complications, your physician may prescribe an antiviral medication. Even if an antiviral is prescribed, this medication will not eliminate the virus completely. After a child has contracted chickenpox, the virus remains inactive in the nervous system.

The dormant virus will provide protection from chickenpox for the rest of your child's life. However, there are cases where the virus resurfaces for a second round of chickenpox or as a shingles infection.

How to Prevent Chickenpox

  • Varicella vaccination: children can be vaccinated between 12-15 months and again between ages 4-6 years
  • Teach your children good hand hygiene
  • Keep others infection free by keeping the child home until the virus is no longer contagious
  • With multiple children in the house, separate the infected child from children who have not had chickenpox

The number of chickenpox infections has significantly decreased thanks to the effective varicella vaccination. Children, adolescents and adults who have not had the disease can receive two doses of the vaccination. Children typically receive the vaccination between 12 and 15 months and then again between ages 4 and 6.