Chickenpox, also known as varicella, is one of the most widespread of the childhood infectious diseases. It causes a trademark red rash and usually leads to severe itching but little else. However, it can evolve into more serious complications, like bacterial pneumonia.

Even after the disease is finished, the virus remains active in the body for many years. One infection with chickenpox grants immunity for life, it is almost impossible to develop the disease again. However, the dormant virus can become reactivated causing shingles, a type of infection rash that can be extremely painful.

Healthy children do not usually face serious risks if infected with chickenpox. The biggest problem is to contain the spread of the disease, which means that the child must stay at home. He will miss school for a while and one of the parents might have to look after him. Chickenpox can be dangerous for kids with a weak immune system, unable to contain the infection. The risk is also much higher for adults who develop the disease, as well as teenagers, infants or pregnant women.

Today, chickenpox can be easily prevented using a special vaccine. Two shots of the vaccine are needed to grant immunity to both children and adults. The vaccine is usually extremely effective and shields people from the disease with no important side effects. In most cases, vaccinated people are immune to chickenpox. If infection does occur, it will be a lot milder than normal, with low or no fever and a decreased number of blisters on the skin. The vaccine protects against serious outbreaks of the disease, even if some minor infections can still happen.

If you are around a person with chickenpox, there are a number of situations when you should ask for medical advice and be extremely careful. Every person who is not vaccinated or did not have the disease during youth is at risk. The condition is especially dangerous for pregnant women and people with a weak immune system. This can be caused by several diseases like cancer or HIV/AIDS, organ transplant procedures, as well as aggressive treatment such as constant usage of steroids, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or immunosuppressive drugs.

What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

Chickenpox causes a distinctive rash that can be extremely itchy. It usually emerges on the torso and extends in all directions, eventually reaching the limbs, neck or the face. Initially the rash consists of red bumps, which later turn into vesicles full of fluid that eventually drains. These can be painful, especially if they appear on sensitive areas like around the eyes, genitals or the scalp. The rash lasts between 7 and 10 days.

The disease proceeds for about two weeks in total, with the rash cycle appearing in several areas of the body. In the end, all of the sores and vesicles are healed. While the spots are wet, the disease continues to be contagious. The reason why chickenpox can spread quickly is that the virus is also contagious for one or more days before the first symptoms.

After taking the virus from an infected person, about 14 to 16 days are needed until the first symptoms appear. It doesn't start with the rash but with other signs, typically fever, sore throat, head pain, low appetite or a cough. The rash only emerges one or two days after these initial symptoms and can be very itchy.

Every red spot caused by chickenpox starts as a blister, then it bursts and dries up and finally gets covered by a crust. This complete life cycle normally takes one or two days. For a period of about a week, new blisters appear daily. After around 10 days from the initial symptoms, all blisters are dry and covered with crusts. While the disease is not fully healed yet, it is no longer contagious and the patient can resume school or work.

What causes chickenpox and how is it spread?

A virus named varicella-zoster is behind the chickenpox infection. It is highly contagious and touching the liquid from the blisters is not the only way of transmission. Any drop from the cough or sneeze from an infected person can pass the virus, as well as contact with his bed linings or clothes. Being around a person with chickenpox or sharing food or drinks is very risky.

Most of the time, the disease is spread by people who don't know they are infected, in the days before the first symptoms appear. It is contagious for a few days before the rash and lasts until every blister is healed and crusted.

People who did not have the disease in their youth and are not vaccinated have a high risk of infection. You should avoid contact with an infected person at all costs in such a situation.

Treatment options

Chickenpox can easily be treated at home with a few simple remedies that decrease the effect of symptoms and prevent complications. Oatmeal baths are a traditional cure, as well as the use of lotion with calamine. Another easy solution is to trim the nails short at all times, in order to reduce scratching and the risk of infection.

Acetaminophen is one of the drugs that can be used to reduce the fever if needed. Aspirin or any drug with a content of aspirin should be avoided at all costs. Studies have revealed that the use of aspirin can lead to Reye's syndrome in children who suffer from chickenpox. This is a very dangerous and potentially lethal condition of the liver and brain.

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