What are chicken pox?

Chicken pox is a well-known illness among young kids, especially those under age of twelve.  An itchy rash of spots that look like blisters can appear all over the body and will be accompanied by symptoms which also appear when someone has the flu. The symptoms normally go away without any treatment, but the infection is very contagious and therefore, an infected child should stay at home and take some rest until the symptoms are dissapeared.

The cause of Chicken pox is the varicella-zoster virus. Kids can be protected from  this virus by getting the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine. This vaccin will be given to the child between 12 to 15 months of age. A booster shot at 4 to 6 years old for further protection is also recommended.

It is also recommended that people older than 13 who have never had chickenpox or received the vaccine against chickenpox get two doses of the vaccine. These doses should at least be 28 days away from each other.

A person normally has only one episode of chicken pox, but the varicella virus can lie dormant within the body and cause a different type of skin eruption later in life called shingles (or herpes zoster). Getting the chicken pox vaccine significantly lowers chances of getting chicken pox by kids, but they could still develop shingles later in life.


The rash begins wit a lot of small red bumps that look like pimples or insect bites. They will develop into thin-walled blisters filled with clear fluid. The blister wall breaks, leaving open sores, which finally crust over to become dry, brown scabs.

Chicken pox blisters are normally less than 1/4 of an inch wide, have a light red base, and appear in crops over two to four days. The rash may be more heavy or severe in kids who have other skindisorders such as eczema.

During chicken pox a part of the kids have a fever, pain in the abdominal area, a sore throat, headaches, a day or two days before the rash appears. These symptoms may be there for a few days, and fever stays in the range of 37.7°-38.8° C. In some rare cases the fever may be higher. With younger kids the symptoms are milder and they have fewer blisters than older children or adults.

Chicken pox is normally a mild illness, but can affect some infants, teens, adults, and people with weak immune systems more severely. With some people you see a development of a serious bacterial infection involving the skin, lungs, bones, joints, and even the brain. Even kids with normal immune systems can sometimes develop complications, mostly a skin infection near the blisters.

Every person who has had chicken pox (or the chicken pox vaccine) as a child is at risk for developing shingles later in life. This is the case for 20% of the people. After an infection, chicken pox virus can remain inactive in the cells of nerves near the spinal cord and reactivate later as shingles.

This can cause tingling, itching, or pain followed by a rash with red bumps and blisters. Shingles is occasionally treated with antiviral drugs, steroids, and medications against pain, and nowadays there is a shingles-vaccine for people 60 and older.

Contagiousness of chicken pox

Chicken pox is very contagious from approximately two days before the rash shows up until all the blisters are crusted over. A child with chicken pox should be kept out of school until all blisters have dried, usually about one week. If you are not certain about whether your child is ready to return to school, please go see a doctor.

Chicken pox is a very contagious illness. Most kids with a sibling who's been infected will get it as well if they haven't already had the disease or the vaccine. They wil show the symptoms about two weeks after the first child does.

To help prevent the virus from spreading, make sure your kids wash their hands on a regular basis, especially before eating and after using the bathroom. And keep a kid with chickenpox away from un-vaccinated siblings as much as possible.

People who haven't had chicken pox or the vaccine also can catch it from a person with shingles, but they cannot catch shingles itself. That's because shingles can only develop from a reactivation of the Chickenpox-virus in a person who has previously had chickenpox.

Chicken pox and Pregnancy

Pregnant women and anyone with immune system problems should not be near a person with chicken pox. If a woman is pregnant and hasn't had chicken pox in  the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, the baby is at risk for bearth defects and she is at risk for more health complications. If the pregnant woman develops chickenpox just before or after the baby is born, the newborn is at risk for serious health complications. There is no risk to the developing baby if the woman develops shingles while being pregnant.

If a pregnant woman has had chicken pox before the pregnancy, the baby will be protected from infection for the first few months of life, since the mother's immunity will pass on to the baby via the placenta and breast milk.

Prevention of chicken pox

Doctors recommend that kids receive the chicken pox vaccine when they're 12 to 15 months old and a booster shot at 4 to 6 years old. The vaccine is about 70% to 85% effective at preventing mild infection, and more than 95% effective in preventing moderate to severe forms of the infection. Therefore, although some kids who are immunized still will get chicken pox, the symptoms are usually much milder than those of kids who haven't had the vaccine and become infected.

Healthy kids who have had chicken pox do not need the vaccine — they usually have lifelong protection against the illness.

Treatment of chicken pox

A virus causes chicken pox, so the doctor won't prescribe antibiotics. However, antibiotics may be required if the sores become infected by bacteria. This is pretty common among kids because they often scratch and pick at the blisters.

The antiviral medicine acyclovir may be prescribed for people with chicken pox who are at risk for complications. The drug, which can make the infection less severe, must be given within the first 24 hours after the rash appears. Acyclovir can have significant side effects, so it is only given when necessary. Your doctor can tell you if the medication is right for your child.

Chicken pox and Discomfort

To help relieve the itchiness, fever, and discomfort of chicken pox:

  • Use cool wet compresses or give baths in cool or lukewarm water every 4 hours for the first couple of days. Oatmeal bath products, available at supermarkets and drugstores, can help to relieve itching. (Baths do not spread the rash.)
  • Don't rub the body dry. Pat it dry.
  • Put calamine lotion on itchy areas. Do not use it in the face.
  • Serve foods that are cold, soft, and bland because chicken pox in the mouth may make drinking or eating difficult. Avoid feeding your child anything with a high level of acid or especially salty, like grapefruit juice or pretzels.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist about relieving the pain with creams, which can be applied to sores in the genital area.
  • Give your child acetaminophen regularly to help relieve pain if your child has mouth blisters.
  • Ask the doctor about using over-the-counter medication for itching. These prescriptions could be a lot of help.

Never use aspirin to reduce pain or fever in kids with chicken pox because aspirin has been associated with the serious disease Reye syndrome, which can lead to liver failure and even death.

Discourage children from scratching as much as possible. Because this can be difficult for them, consider putting socks on your child's hands to prevent scratching during sleep. In addition, trim their fingernails and keep them very clean to make the effects of scratching less worse, including broken blisters and infection.

Most chicken pox infections should have no special medical treatment. But sometimes, there are problems. A doctor should be called if:

  • your child has fever that lasts for more than four days or the temperature rises above 102° F (38.8° C)
  • your child has a serious cough or has trouble breathing
  • your child has an area of rash that leaks pus (thick, discolored fluid) or becomes red, warm, swollen, or sore
  • your child has a serious headache
  • your child is unusually has trouble waking up in the morning
  • your child has trouble looking at lights which are bright
  • your child has difficulty walking straight
  • your child seems a little confused
  • your child seems is vomiting
  • your child has a stiff neck

Call your doctor if you think your child has chicken pox and you have a question or are concerned about a possible complication. The doctor can guide you in watching for complications and in choosing medication to relieve itching.

If taking your child to the doctor, let the office know in advance that your child might have chicken pox. It's important to try to avoid exposing other kids in the office — for some of them, a chicken pox infection could cause severe complications.

Chicken Pox Treatment - Acetaminophen
Patients with chicken pox normally have viral-type, prodromal symptoms such as headache, fever, fatigue, and muscle aches. These symptoms can be treated with acetaminophen or also called Tylenol with doses determined by the weight of the patient. Children should never be given aspirin or medications containing aspirin for chicken pox or any other viral illness because of the risk of Reye's syndrome.

Chicken Pox Treatment - Soothing Baths
Frequent baths are sometimes helpful to relieve itching. Adding finely-ground (colloidal) oatmeal such as Aveeno can help improve itching. Oatmeal baths can be prepared at home also by grinding or blending dry oatmeal into a fine powder and adding about 2 cups to the bath water. One-half to one cup of baking soda may also be added to bath water to reduce itching.

Chicken Pox Treatment - Lotions
The most common lotion used for chicken pox is Calamine lotion. This or any similar over-the-counter preparation can be applied to the blisters to help dry them out and soothe the skin.

Chicken Pox Treatment - Antihistamines
Over-the-counter and prescription antihistamines may be used to control severe itching. Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is available over-the-counter and hydroxyzine (Atarax) is available by prescription. Both of these antihistamines cause drowsiness and may be helpful at night to help the patient sleep. The newer antihistamines such as loratadine (Claritin), certrizine (Zyrtec), and fexofenadine (Allegra) can be used to control itching but do not cause drowsiness.

Chicken Pox Treatment - Preventing Scratching
Scratching increases the risk of secondary bacterial infections. All patients with chicken pox should have their nails trimmed short. In addition, small children may have to wear mittens to reduce scratching.

Chicken Pox Treatment - Acyclovir
Acyclovir (Zovirax) is an anti-viral drug that may be used to treat chicken pox. In uncomplicated cases acyclovir taken 5 times a day has been shown to cause shorter periods of new lesion formation, fewer lesions, and more rapid healing but only if started within 24 to 48 hours of the onset of the rash. Acyclovir has not been shown to decrease the rate of complications in otherwise healthy children who get chicken pox. Oral acyclovir is more strongly recommended for children with underlying skin disease such as eczema, newborns, adults, and smokers since this group is at greater risk for complications. IV acyclovir is used for people with compromised immune systems.

Chicken Pox Treatment - Other Anti-Virals
Currently acyclovir (Zovirax) is the only FDA-approved treatment for chicken pox. However, the antiviral medications valacyclovir (Valtrex) and , used to treat herpes simplex virus infections, have been shown to be effective for chicken pox and are often prescribed.