Key Points about Chickenpox

  • Chickenpox is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VSV) that causes an itchy, blistering rash, and is highly contagious.
  • Chickenpox can spread from person to person via saliva or fluid from chickenpox lesion, and can be contagious up to two days before a visible rash develops.
  • Vaccination prevents chickenpox in ninety-eight percent of people who receive the vaccine as recommended.
Common related conditions
Shingles

Overview

Chickenpox is a viral condition that causes an itchy, blistering rash, and is highly contagious. It results from an infection by the varicella-zoster virus (VSV), which can spread from person to person by exposure to an affected person’s saliva or fluid from chicken pox lesions.

Chickenpox is usually treated at home by taking measures to alleviate itchiness and other symptoms. People infected with chickenpox must stay home from school or work to prevent it from spreading. Blisters should fall off within two weeks, after which time the person is no longer contagious, and can return to school or work.

The only way to effectively prevent chickenpox is through vaccination. Ninety-eight percent of people who receive the vaccine as recommended will never develop chickenpox.

Call your doctor if you or you or your child has a rash that resembles chickenpox, or if you are unsure of your child’s chickenpox vaccination history.

Chickenpox causes

Chickenpox results when you become infected with the varicella-zoster virus (VSV). You can acquire this infection by coming into contact with someone infected with virus. Chickenpox can spread via:

  • Saliva, such as from sneezing and coughing
  • Direct contact with the blister fluid in an infected person’s lesions

You can acquire chicken pox from someone even up to two days before their blisters become visible.

Chickenpox risk factors

Chickenpox can develop in any person who has not been previously exposed to the virus, whether through vaccination or through infection.

You may be at an increased risk of developing chickenpox if you:

  • Have been recently exposed to someone who is infected
  • Are younger than 12
  • Spend time in a child care facility or in a school
  • Are immunocompromised

Chickenpox symptoms

The primary symptom of chickenpox is a red, itchy, or blistering rash that occurs in spots on the skin across the body. The rash often begins on the face, neck and back before spreading to the rest of the body.

After becoming infected with VSV, you will carry the infection in your body for one to three weeks before experiencing any symptoms.

For several days before the rash develops, you may experience:

  • A fever
  • Headaches
  • Decreased appetite

Chickenpox rashes move through the following stages:

  • They begin as pink or red bumps spread across the body
  • These bumps turn into blisters, from which a contagious fluid leaks
  • Blisters eventually turn into scabs and ultimately heal

People infected with chickenpox are contagious until the last of their blisters have turned into scabs and fallen off.

Chickenpox complications

Chickenpox can cause complications, particularly for babies whose mothers were infected with the virus during pregnancy. These children may experience:

  • Impaired development
  • A small skull
  • Vision problems
  • Intellectual disabilities

People who have been infected with chickenpox are also at risk of developing shingles later in life. Shingles is a separate skin rash caused by the same virus responsible for chickenpox.

Chickenpox prevention

The varicella, or chickenpox, vaccine effectively prevents chickenpox 98 percent of those who receive the vaccine as recommended. Children between 12 and 15 months old should receive the vaccine, and should receive a booster shot when they are between four and six years old.

It is difficult to prevent chickenpox through any other method than vaccination. Avoiding direct contact with infected persons is challenging, as visible symptoms develop only after one has become contagious.

Chickenpox diagnosis

When diagnosing chickenpox, doctors will perform a physical examination of the rash, and may order lab tests to determine whether VSV is present.

Chickenpox treatment

After being diagnosed with chickenpox, people are often advised to use home remedies to treat symptoms until they subside. Home remedies include:

  • Taking warm baths
  • Using unscented lotions
  • Choosing soft, loose-fitting clothing

Because chickenpox is highly contagious, infected children and adults will need to stay home from school and work until all blisters have healed.

In some situations, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral drug to promote quicker recovery.

When to seek care

Call your doctor if you are experiencing a rash that resembles chickenpox, and have a fever. You should also alert your doctor immediately if you have come into contact with chickenpox while pregnant.

If you have already been diagnosed with chickenpox, call your doctor as soon as possible if your rash:

  • Is spreading to your eyes
  • Is extremely tender to the touch, warm, and red
  • Is coupled with shortness of breath or dizziness

Next Steps

Within one to two weeks of the initial rash, most people are able to return to work and school, as symptoms have subsided. For most people, an infection with chickenpox leaves them with an immunity to the virus, meaning they will not develop the condition again.