What is Chickenpox?

The varicella-zoster virus (VZV), commonly known as chickenpox, is an extremely contagious disease that causes an itching pimple-like rash on the skin. This rash usually appears on the back, abdomen, or face first, and then hundreds of blisters can appear all over the rest of the body. While chickenpox is quite common, it can be dangerous for babies, pregnant women, adults, those with HIV/AIDS, and those with compromised immune systems. While the illness typically lasts about a week, complications can arise and cause bronchitis, pneumonia, encephalitis, and the like.

Chickenpox can spread easily if a person is in proximity to those with the disease. It can spread through skin contact or even through tiny droplets from coughing or breathing. The spread of chickenpox can be prevented with a vaccine; however, even vaccinated people can catch chickenpox. People who’ve already had the disease rarely get it twice; but again, they too can catch it again.

What are the Symptoms of Chickenpox?

The first signs of chickenpox usually appear two weeks after a person comes into contact with the virus.

Symptoms include

Fatigue, headaches, coughing, a sore throat, and a fever are usually the first symptoms to appear before the itchy rash. The rash forms blisters all over the body which then scab over.

Chickenpox Causes

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV) which is highly contagious. It can be spread via the fluid in chickenpox blisters and from water droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. People can contract it either by touching the virus or breathing it in. It’s also possible to contract chickenpox from someone with shingles, since shingles is caused by the same virus.

Being in the same room as someone with chickenpox for more than 15 minutes can be enough to contract the infection. It’s also possible to pick it up from touching contaminated surfaces or objects, such as door handles or faucets.

An individual with chickenpox is contagious up to two days before the chickenpox rash appears. They will remain contagious until the chickenpox blisters have all completely dried out and formed a crust.

How is Chickenpox Treated?

Chickenpox usually runs its course without treatment.

Treatment includes

However, supportive treatments can be used to ease symptoms. Moisturizing lotions and oatmeal baths are recommended to ease the itchy rash. Over-the-counter pain medication and antihistamines may be used to ease pain and stop allergic reactions.

If a person is a high-risk candidate (e.g. a pregnant woman) for complications, such as bacterial infections, then he or she will need to seek out a primary care physician or a pediatrician to get an antiviral drug to make sure the virus doesn’t replicate.

Children can be immunized with two doses of vaccine administered at the age of one and then at four or six. The second dose can also include protection against measles, mumps and rubella.

Chickenpox Prevention

Preventing chickenpox may be possible by avoiding contact with those who have chickenpox or shingles, and thoroughly washing hands and surfaces when in contact with infected persons.

It is also possible to prevent chickenpox by having the chickenpox vaccine. Both children and adults can have the vaccine. Children have the first dose at around 12 months old, and the second between the age of four and six years. For adults and children aged over 13, two doses are also necessary and should be given at least 28 days apart.

Some people with compromised immune systems may not be able to have the chickenpox vaccine. This is because, as with all vaccines, it contains a small amount of the virus which the weakened immune system will struggle to fight.

The following people should never get the chickenpox vaccine:

  • Pregnant women
  • Those who have had serious allergic reactions to the first dose of chickenpox vaccine or to components of the vaccine
  • People who are severely ill at the time of the vaccine
  • Those who have recently had a blood transfusion

The following people may be able to have the chickenpox vaccine after consulting their doctor:

  • People with HIV/AIDS
  • Those taking steroids or other drugs which affect the immune system
  • People with cancer or undergoing treatment for cancer
Last Reviewed:
September 18, 2016
Last Updated:
December 01, 2017