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Chickenpox

What Is Chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a viral infection that causes fever and an itchy rash with spots all over the body.

It used to be a common childhood illness in the United States, especially in kids under age 12. It's much rarer now, thanks to the varicella vaccine.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Chickenpox?

Chickenpox often starts without the classic rash, with a fever, headache, sore throat, or stomachache. These symptoms may last for a few days, with the fever in the 101°â€“102°F (38.3°â€“38.8°C) range.

The red, itchy skin rash usually starts on the belly or back and face. Then it spreads to almost everywhere else on the body, including the scalp, mouth, arms, legs, and genitals.

The rash begins as many small red bumps that look like pimples or insect bites. They appear in waves over 2 to 4 days, then develop into thin-walled blisters filled with fluid. The blister walls break, leaving open sores, which finally crust over to become dry, brown scabs.

illustration

All three stages of the chickenpox rash (red bumps, blisters, and scabs) appear on the body at the same time. The rash may spread wider or be more severe in kids who have weak immune systems or skin disorders like eczema.

What Causes Chickenpox?

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). This virus also can cause a painful skin rash called shingles (herpes zoster) later in life. After someone has had chickenpox, the virus stays dormant (resting) in the nervous system for the rest of their life. The virus can reactivate ("wake up") later as shingles.

Kids who are vaccinated against chickenpox are much less likely to develop shingles when they get older.

Is Chickenpox Contagious?

Chickenpox is very contagious. Most kids with a sibling who's infected also will get it (if they haven't already had the infection or the vaccine), showing symptoms about 2 weeks after the first child does.

Someone with chickenpox can spread the virus:

  • through droplets in the air by coughing or sneezing
  • in their mucus, saliva (spit), or fluid from the blisters

Chickenpox is contagious from about 2 days before the rash starts until all the blisters are crusted over.

Someone with shingles can spread chickenpox (but not shingles) to people who haven't had chickenpox or the vaccine.

Because chickenpox is so contagious, a child who has it should stay home and rest until the rash is gone and all blisters have dried. This usually takes about 1 week. If you're unsure about whether your child is ready to return to school, ask your doctor.

What Problems Can Happen?

Some people are more at risk for complications from chickenpox, including:

  • pregnant women
  • newborns born to mothers who had chickenpox
  • patients with leukemia
  • kids receiving medicines that suppress the immune system
  • anyone with immune system problems

If they are exposed to chickenpox, they might be given a medicine (zoster immune globulin) to make the illness less severe.

Can Chickenpox Be Prevented?

Yes. Most people who get the chickenpox vaccine will not get chickenpox. And if they do get chickenpox, their symptoms will be much milder. 

Doctors recommend that kids get the chickenpox vaccine as:

  1. a first shot when they're 12–15 months old
  2. a booster shot when they're 4–6 years old

People 6 years of age and older who have never had chickenpox and aren't vaccinated can and should get two doses of the vaccine.

Kids who have had chickenpox do not need the vaccine — they usually have lifelong protection against the illness.

How Is Chickenpox Diagnosed?

Doctors usually can diagnose chickenpox by looking at the telltale rash.

Call your doctor if you think your child has chickenpox. The doctor can guide you in watching for complications and in choosing medicine to ease itching.

If you take your child to the doctor, let the staff know ahead of time that your child might have chickenpox. It's important not to expose other kids in the office — for some of them, a chickenpox infection could cause serious complications.

How Is Chickenpox Treated?

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