Understanding Chickenpox

Chickenpox is a viral illness that spreads very easily from person to person. Most children used to get chickenpox from another infected person.  But a vaccine became available in 1995 that can prevent chickenpox. Most people who have had chickenpox once don’t get it again. That’s because they become immune to the virus. But the virus stays in the body and can show up later in life as shingles. Shingles causes a painful skin rash. A vaccine is available to prevent shingles.

What causes chickenpox?

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It can easily spread to people who have not had chickenpox and have not been vaccinated. The virus spreads when:

  • You breathe in the virus from the air. This can happen when someone with chickenpox or shingles sneezes or coughs near you.

  • You get the virus on your hands. This can happen if you touch someone’s chickenpox or shingles blisters.

Someone with chickenpox is contagious even before symptoms appear. This is partly why chickenpox spreads so easily.

What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

Chickenpox is often a mild illness, especially in young children. But it can be serious enough to cause severe illness or even death. This is especially true in older adults. And in adults with weakened immune systems.

Chickenpox often starts with symptoms that feel like the flu. These symptoms can include:

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Sore throat

  • Feeling tired or unwell

  • Loss of appetite

A day or 2 later, red spots appear on your body. This rash is often itchy. The red spots turn into small blisters. Then they scab over and go away. Blisters may also appear in your mouth or throat. A chickenpox rash often goes away within 2 weeks.

How is chickenpox treated?

Treatment for most children with chickenpox focuses on easing symptoms. These treatments may include:

  • Over-the-counter pain medicines (such as acetaminophen). These can help with mild pain, especially if blisters are inside the mouth. Don’t give aspirin (or medicine that contains aspirin) to a child younger than age 19 unless directed by your child’s provider. Taking aspirin can put your child at risk for Reye syndrome. This is a rare but very serious disorder. It most often affects the brain and the liver.

  • Over-the-counter antihistamine medicines (such as diphenhydramine or loratadine). These can help ease itching.

  • Skin treatments to ease itching. These include calamine lotion and oatmeal baths.

In most cases, the healthcare provider won't give a child antiviral medicine or antibiotics for chickenpox. These medicines don't shorten the illness or ease symptoms.

Follow all directions for using medicines, especially when giving them to children. Call the healthcare provider if you have any questions about using medicines safely.

Having chickenpox virus is risky for:

  • Pregnant women

  • Babies

  • Children older than 12

  • Adults

  • People with a weak immune system

  • People with certain long-term (chronic) skin or lung diseases

For these people, treatment is aimed at helping the body fight the virus. Their treatment is likely to include antiviral medicine, either by mouth or by IV (intravenously) into a vein. This can help shorten the illness or make it less severe. This is especially true if you take this medicine very early in the illness.   

How can I prevent chickenpox?

The best way to prevent the spread of chickenpox is to make sure that you and your family members are immune to it.

  • Talk with your healthcare provider about getting the vaccine if you did not have chickenpox as a child, or if you have not had the vaccine.

  • Make sure your children have all their vaccines on schedule.

  • Ask your healthcare provider to vaccinate you for chickenpox if you have been exposed to the virus but have not had the infection in the past or been vaccinated against it. This can prevent illness or make it less severe.

What are the possible complications of chickenpox?

Complications of chickenpox include:

  • Skin infection. This can happen when scratching allows bacteria to get into the blisters.

  • Swelling of the brain or spinal cord. This can cause severe headache, unsteady movements, or severe sleepiness.

  • Lung infection (pneumonia). This causes a cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of these:

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by your provider

  • Any of the complications listed above

  • You can't eat or drink because of painful sores or you can't retain fluids

  • You don’t get better after 5 to 7 days

Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2019
© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.