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Chickenpox (Varicella)

What is the chickenpox?

  • Chickenpox, or Varicella, is a highly contagious disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus.
  • Before the vaccine for chickenpox became available in 1995, it was one of the most common childhood diseases.
  • Most children with chickenpox have mild symptoms, but it can be very serious, especially in young infants and adults.
  • After a person has chickenpox, the virus stays in the body. Years later, it can cause a painful disease called zoster, or shingles.

How does a child get chickenpox?

  • Chickenpox can be spread from person to person through the air from an infected person’s coughing or sneezing or by contact with fluid from chickenpox blisters.

How long will it take my child to become ill after being exposed to someone else with chickenpox?

  • Remember, just because your child is exposed to an ill person does not necessarily mean they too will become ill.
  • But if your child is to become ill, it usually takes between 10 and 21 days after exposure.

How long is someone with chickenpox contagious?

  • Chickenpox is contagious 1 – 2 days before the rash appears and until all the blisters have formed scabs, usually in 5 – 10 days.

What are the signs and symptoms of chickenpox?

  1. At first, little red spots or bumps appear, usually on the back, chest, abdomen or scalp
  2. The rash spreads to other areas such as the face, arms and legs.
  3. The bumps become blisters and are extremely itchy. The blisters often are surrounded by a flat, reddened area (likened to a “raindrop on a rose petal”) (see photo called Chickenpox)
  4. Hundreds of individual blisters can be seen.  Some will be new red spots and bumps, others will be blisters, and eventually the blisters will crust over.
  5. The most important clue that the rash is chickenpox: You will see a mix of red spots or bumps, blisters, and crusted blisters during the illness (see photo called Chickenpox 2).

What are some of the possible complications of chickenpox?

  • Certain persons are more likely to have more serious illness with complications including adults, infants, adolescents and people with weak immune systems from either illnesses or from medications such a long-term steroids.
  • The blisters can become infected
  • Tissues under the skin can become infected and possibly leave scars
  • Pneumonia
  • Infection of the brain (encephalitis)

If I am pregnant and exposed to chickenpox can this harm my baby?

  • If a woman gets chickenpox just before or after giving birth, her baby can get very sick.
  • If you never had chickenpox or the vaccine and are exposed to someone with chickenpox or get the chickenpox, then you should contact your obstetrician right away to discuss possible options for preventing or treating the illness.

How can chickenpox be diagnosed?

  • The chickenpox is usually a clinical diagnosis meaning that the diagnosis is based on the child’s symptoms and physical examination.
  • In some situations special test may be used to make the diagnosis.

What is the treatment for chickenpox?

  1. Plenty of rest and fluids
  2. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  4. Keep your child’s fingernails cut
  5. Antihistamine for itching
  6. Oatmeal baths to soothe the skin
  7. In some situations your pediatrician may use an antiviral medication called acyclovir, but to be effective it must be used very early in their illness.

 When should I call my pediatrician concerning chickenpox in my child?

  • It is best to call for specific instructions when you first suspect that your child has chickenpox so that the diagnosis can be confirmed.
  • You should also call your doctor if your child has had fever for more than two to three days, blisters that appear to become infected (i.e. redness, warmth, tender, and/or pus present), if your child is having trouble breathing, or their activity is decreased.

How can chickenpox be prevented?

  • The best way to prevent chickenpox is to keep your child away from children with the active disease.
    The chickenpox vaccine is the safest, most effective way to prevent chickenpox and its possible complications.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the chickenpox vaccine for children between 12 and 18 months of age, or at any age after that if they have never had chickenpox.
  • People who do not get the vaccine until 13 years of age or older should get 2 doses, 4 – 8 weeks apart.
  • Getting chickenpox vaccine is much safer than getting chickenpox disease.
  • It is still possible to get chickenpox even if you have been given the vaccine but it is usually very mild. They will have fewer spots, are less likely to have a fever, and will recover faster.