Chickenpox symptoms and prevention

If you grew up before the mid-nineties, chickenpox might’ve seemed like a rite of passage.

Most children you knew got chickenpox – a highly contagious viral disease caused by a kind of herpesvirus called varicella-zoster virus (VZV).

Thanks to the chickenpox vaccine, however, this is no longer the case. According to surveillance data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), incidences of varicella declined by 79% between 2000-2010. But individuals who haven’t gotten the vaccine are still susceptible. Think your child might have chickenpox or want to prevent it? Here what you need to know.

How is chickenpox transmitted or spread?

Since chickenpox is highly contagious, the virus easily spreads from an infected person to others who are not immune, including those who haven’t had the virus or received a vaccination. Ninety percent of the time this is in children younger than 10 years old.

The disease is mainly transmitted by touching the fluid-filled blisters of an individual with chickenpox, but it can also be transmitted through saliva or mucus from a cough or sneeze. Additionally, children can become infected with chickenpox from coming in contact with someone who has shingles, or herpes zoster, another form of the varicella-zoster virus.

Chickenpox causes three stages of rashes, starting with small red bumps that progress into blisters and then scabs. They’re contagious from 1 – 2 days before the onset of small bumps until all lesions have scabbed over.

Typically, it takes 10 – 21 days after exposure to chickenpox or shingles for a child to develop signs and symptoms of chickenpox.

The good news is that getting chickenpox once usually provides immunity for life. But since it remains in the body after the initial infection, it can result in shingles later in life.

What to look for: chickenpox signs and symptoms

While itchy, blister-like rashes are the telltale sign of chickenpox, they’re usually not the first symptom.

Other chickenpox symptoms that can begin 1 – 2 days before the rash include:

Then, the red and itchy skin rash appears, typically on the belly, back, or face and afterward spreads everywhere on the body, including the scalp, mouth, arms, legs, and genitals.

It usually takes about one week for all the blisters to become scabs.

How to feel better: chickenpox treatment

Like other viral infections, unfortunately, chickenpox cannot be cured with antibiotics.

However, you can try some chickenpox treatment methods at home to help relieve your child’s irritating symptoms. 

Chickenpox treatment for itching and discomfort includes:

  • Applying a cool, moist compress
  • Giving lukewarm baths with baking soda, uncooked oatmeal or colloidal oatmeal
  • Using a calamine lotion to ease the itch
  • Putting on gloves or mittens to avoid scratching and further skin irritation
  • Trimming fingernails to help prevent skin infections

If your child has painful blisters in the mouth, children’s formula acetaminophen can also provide some relief. Never give your little one aspirin though, as it can lead to a serious illness called Reye’s syndrome.

Signs to call your pediatrician or visit the emergency room if your child seems very ill

  • Has a fever that lasts more than four days
  • Has a rash that pusses yellow fluid or is warm, red and swollen
  • Has trouble waking up or is very drowsy
  • Has a severe headache
  • Has trouble looking at bright lights
  • Has a severe cough or trouble breathing
  • Has a stiff neck
  • Has trouble walking
  • Is confused
  • Is vomiting

Chickenpox party vs varicella vaccine

Before the chickenpox vaccine was released in 1995, parents often used chickenpox parties as a way to infect their children so that they could get over the virus sooner. And recently these parties have again become popular.

Such parties may leave parents wondering, “Are there benefits to getting chickenpox naturally?” or “Should I exposure my child to a chickenpox party?”  While some will argue there are pros and cons to chickenpox parties, the CDC strongly recommends against hosting or participating in these parties.

Instead, the best way to protect children from chickenpox is to get them vaccinated. Since 2007, the U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has advised that children and healthy adults with evidence of no immunity to chickenpox receive two doses of the vaccine. Routine childhood vaccination includes the first dose at 12 – 15 months and the second at 4 – 6 years old.

Chickenpox is a serious illness

Prior to vaccination, an average of 4 million individuals got chickenpox annually, 10,500 – 13,000 were hospitalized, and 100 –150 died each year.

If your child is not immune to chickenpox and catches the virus, they could be at risk of developing serious health complications, though these are more common in infants, adolescents, pregnant women, and adults with weakened immune systems.

Serious complications of chickenpox include:

  • Bacterial infections in blisters
  • Pneumonia or flu
  • Severe dehydration
  • Infection or inflammation of the brain (encephalitis)
  • Bleeding problems or bloodstream infections (sepsis)

Some individuals with serious chickenpox complications need to be hospitalized and, in rare cases, chickenpox can lead to death.

Relationship between chickenpox and shingles

Researchers have theorized the varicella vaccine may have given shingles an unintended boost since it’s slowly been on the rise since the early nineties. However, correlation doesn’t equal causation.

One massive study by the CDC, involving 3 million adults, found that annual rates of shingles increased by 39% over 18 years. But they didn’t find a statistically significant change in the rate after the introduction of the chickenpox vaccine.

Plus, they found the rate of shingles didn’t vary from state to state where there were different rates of chickenpox vaccine coverage.

Immunity, whether from having the virus or the vaccine, wanes over time. If it wanes enough, it can result in shingles. This shouldn’t deter individuals from getting the chickenpox vaccination though.

Because the vaccine not only can protect your child but can also prevent outbreaks in your community that could harm those more vulnerable.

Visit an urgent care center to treat chicken pox

Does your child have a rash you’re not sure is chickenpox? Healthcare professionals at our Urgent Care centers treat minor rashes and skin infections.