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Chickenpox: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatments
|This content is for information purposes only and is not provided with the intention of diagnosing a condition or illness. You should speak to a medical professional for diagnosis.|
Chickenpox (varicella) is a highly contagious viral disease caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV)1. Chickenpox causes a rash of red, itchy spots that turn into fluid-filled blisters which eventually crust over to form scabs2. Chickenpox outbreaks are more common in winter and early spring1.
For most healthy people, chickenpox is mild and the person recovers fully without specific treatment. Chickenpox is more severe in adults and anyone with impaired immunity, and complications occur in around 1% of cases – one in 33,000 people with chickenpox can develop encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)1,3.
Children and adults can be immunised against chickenpox.
How do you get chickenpox?
Chickenpox is caused by the varicella zoster virus and can be spread via direct contact or by sneezing or coughing4. You can also catch chickenpox by touching items and surfaces that have been contaminated with the virus.
The chickenpox virus is highly contagious to people who have never had it or who have not been vaccinated. An infected person is contagious for up to five days before the onset of the rash and remains infections until their blisters form scabs1.
Chickenpox triggers an immune response which means that people don’t usually get it more than once4. However, the varicella zoster virus can reactivate many years after the initial infection and cause shingles5.
What are the symptoms of chickenpox?
Chickenpox generally starts with the infected person feeling unwell and developing a rash and a slight temperature5. The rash is most likely to appear on the face, ears and scalp, under the arms, on the chest and belly and arms and legs, however it can be anywhere on the body – even inside the ears and mouth or on the palms of your hands or soles of your feet2.
While the rash starts as small red spots, after about 12 hours the spots will develop into blisters and become intensely itchy5. The fluid in the blisters will get cloudy a day or two later, and the blisters will start to dry out and crust over. This crusting skin will fall off naturally in one or two weeks. The blisters shouldn’t leave a scar unless they’re badly infected5.
The time from infection to the appearance of the chickenpox rash is about 14 days1. You may feel feverish and have a sore throat and headache a few days before the rash appears, and the skin may be marked for months after the rash has cleared.
What should you do if you’ve been exposed to chickenpox?
If you’ve been exposed to chickenpox, you can ask your doctor for a test to see if you’re already immune. If you’ve had chickenpox in the past, it’s very unlikely that you will develop it a second time6.
How is chickenpox diagnosed?
Medical tests are generally not needed to diagnose chickenpox – you can be fairly confident that it’s chickenpox if your symptoms are a mild fever followed by an itchy rash, blisters, and scabs6.
Chickenpox spots are usually distinctive enough to distinguish from other rashes; however the virus can have serious complications so you should see your doctor if you’re not sure whether you have chickenpox6. If you do visit your GP, you should let the receptionist know you’re concerned you may have chickenpox so that they can ensure you’re separated from other people in the waiting room3.
How is chickenpox treated?
The following chickenpox treatments are focused on relieving the symptoms of the virus:
- Stay hydrated
- Use paracetamol to relieve the fever and discomfort
- Take baths
- Wear loose, comfortable clothing
- Apply calamine lotion or gauze pads soaked in bicarbonate of soda and water to your sores
- Try to avoid scratching or picking at your spots
If you have severe chickenpox, you may be given medication to treat the virus3.
Is chickenpox contagious?
Yes, chickenpox is highly contagious to people who have never had it or who have not been vaccinated. If you have the virus, you can help stop it spreading by3:
- Staying away from childcare, school, work and other places where you could spread the infection
- Washing your hands often
- Covering your mouth when you cough and sneeze
Can I be immunised against chickenpox?
Yes, the best way to avoid chickenpox is to be immunised7. The chickenpox vaccination is recommended as part of the childhood immunisation program to help prevent the disease. Immunisation against chickenpox is achieved in one dose of the measles-mumps-rubella-varicella (MMRV) combination vaccine given to babies at 18 months of age7.
Who is at high risk of catching chickenpox?
You’re at a higher risk of catching chickenpox or having complications from the infection if you:
- Are a newborn baby
- Are a pregnant woman who has not had chickenpox or been immunised against chickenpox
- Have a weakened immune system
Are there complications associated with chickenpox?
While chickenpox is usually a mild illness, it can be severe and have serious complications including bacterial skin infections, pneumonia, infection of the blood (sepsis) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)2.
Pregnant women should be especially careful to avoid chickenpox as it can cause foetal abnormalities to unborn babies.
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