What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus. This type of germ cannot be treated with antibiotics. It once was a common childhood disease until a vaccine was invented to prevent it.

Your first clue that your child may have chickenpox is the large number of bright red dots on his or her skin. Your child could have as many as 250 to 500 red dots before the virus runs its course after five to seven days. Your child will be contagious for 48 hours before the dots appear and scab over.

Symptoms of chickenpox

You may not know your child has chickenpox at first. The red dots usually appear 10 to 21 days after catching the virus. In milder cases, the most noticeable symptoms are the red dots, which appear in stages on your child’s stomach, back, and face before spreading to his or her entire body. In more severe cases, the dots can move inside your child’s throat, eyes, certain urinary parts, bottom, and vagina. The dots begin as raised bumps, turn into fluid-filled blisters, and end as scabs. They are extremely itchy. Scratching causes the blisters to break open and could lead to infection and scars.

Your child also may have flu-like symptoms for several days before the dots appear. These symptoms include a fever between 101° and 102°F, drowsiness, a poor appetite, headache, a sore throat, and stomachache.

What causes chickenpox?

Chickenpox is caused by a virus called the varicella zoster virus. You can catch it by coming in with someone who is infected.

How is chickenpox diagnosed?

Your doctor can generally tell if the red dots are chickenpox. He or she may check for other flu-like symptoms. Your doctor also can test blood or test a small sample from one of the red dots. You should call your doctor if your child:

  • has difficulty breathing.
  • has a fever that lasts for more than 4 days or spikes beyond 102°.
  • has blisters with yellow fluid coming out from the sores.
  • has blisters that feel warm or look swollen.
  • has a severe headache.
  • is unusually sleepy or has difficulty waking up.
  • is bothered by bright lights.
  • has trouble walking.
  • is confused.
  • is vomiting, is extremely nauseous, or has a stiff neck.

Can chickenpox be prevented or avoided?

Getting your child vaccinated at the recommended age of between 12 and 15 months old and a booster vaccination between ages four and six is the best prevention. It is 99% percent effective in protecting against the virus. On rare occasions, people who get the vaccine may still get chickenpox.

If you know a child who has chickenpox or was recently exposed to the virus, keep your child away from that friend or classmate. Keep your child home once you know he or she has chickenpox to minimize spreading it to others. Chickenpox is an airborne virus, and also can be spread through mucus, saliva, or by touching the fluid from the blisters.

Adults who escaped chickenpox as a child, but have not gotten the vaccine, are at risk for exposure to the virus. Adults can get the vaccine with the booster soon after. Getting the chickenpox puts you at a higher risk of getting shingles, a painful skin condition that lays dormant until you get older. Shingles also appears as an itchy, sore rash with blisters.

If you are pregnant or have a weakened immune system, you are at a higher risk for complications from chickenpox.

Chickenpox treatment

A virus causes chickenpox, so antibiotics are not helpful in treating this type of germ. Doctors might prescribe an antibiotic if the dots become infected from scratching. This will depend on the age and health of your child, as well as how bad the chickenpox have become in a 5- or 7-day period. The best your doctor can offer are solutions to treat the symptoms. For the itching caused by the blisters, your doctor may suggest applying a cool, wet cloth to the blisters. Do not rub the sores as they will break open. Cool or lukewarm baths also may help. Many people find that lotions and bathing products made with oatmeal relieve itching. Using calamine lotion on areas below the face also can provide relief from itching.

If your child has mouth blisters, be sure to give him or her foods and drinks that are cold, soft, and bland to avoid causing the blisters to break open. The same care should be taken with acidic and salty foods. Topical pain relief creams approved by your doctor also can help. Keeping your child from scratching the sores will be a big challenge. Having them wear mittens or socks on their hands will reduce the damage from scratching with their nails.

Do not give your child aspirin, due to the increased risk of Reye syndrome, which can cause liver failure and death. Acetaminophen is an acceptable oral pain relief medication.

Living with chickenpox

For the short time you have chickenpox, there’s little you can do other than make yourself as comfortable as possible. Follow the guidelines in the treatment section and limit your exposure to others.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I keep myself and others from catching chickenpox if we haven’t had a vaccine or the virus?
  • Can a hot shower or bath irritate the sores?
  • Can you catch chickenpox more than once?
  • Who should not receive the chickenpox vaccine?
  • What should I do if I think my child has been exposed to chickenpox?
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