Chicken pox, or varicella, is a common childhood illness caused by the human varicella zoster-virus. It is an uncomfortable condition, but most make a complete recovery. Exposure to someone else with this illness in a school setting, or on a playdate, is the general means of transmission. However, incubation of the virus can take up to two weeks before symptoms appear.
Initial symptoms of chicken pox are usually ignored. One may have slight nasal congestion, a loss in appetite, or one may feel tired or run down. These symptoms may occur for a day or two before other manifestations of the disease. At this point, contagion is possible. So if one has not had chicken pox and has been exposed to someone who has come down with the more recognized symptoms a day or two after exposure, it is still quite possible to contract the virus.
The next symptom of varicella is a rash that can be present anywhere on the body. It usually develops on the trunk first, and then spreads to the rest of the body. It can also be present in the mouth, on the palms of the hands, on the genitals, or on the scalp.
At first the rash appears to be a collection of tiny blisters. The number of blisters varies considerably. Some people, especially very young children may only show one or two blisters. It is not uncommon however to have over 100 blisters covering the body.
Within two to three days of the blisters appearing, they will break and become sores. This tends to be the most uncomfortable time for those affected with varicella, as the sores can itch. Scratching the sores can cause secondary infections to form, and may cause scarring as well, so scratching should be avoided. Calamine lotion and oatmeal baths may help relieve some of the itching.
The sores begin to crust over and form scabs about 10 days after forming. Once all sores are scabbed, and the scabs are falling off, there is little risk of spreading the illness to others. Children may also have a slight fever during the first few days of the condition. A fever over 101 degrees F. (38.33 degrees C.) may indicate infection of one or more sores. One should contact a doctor if fever continues beyond the first few days of appearance of the blisters or if any of the sores seem to be filled with pus. Children with fever should never be given aspirin, as this virus is one that may cause the very severe Reye’s syndrome when aspirin is taken.
Women who contract chicken pox during pregnancy can pass the virus to their unborn children. This can be very dangerous especially in the first three months of pregnancy and can result in growth problems and defects. It is highly recommended that women who have not had this disease receive the chicken pox vaccination a few months before trying to conceive.
Older children, teenagers and young adults are likely to have more severe cases of varicella than young children. They usually have more sores, run a temperature for longer, and may experience some nausea.
The greatest complication of this condition in the healthy adult or child is infection of the sores resulting in either strep or staph infections of the blood. Sores should be carefully evaluated, and a doctor should be contacted if any sores seem to be infected. Those with compromised immune systems can become very ill with chicken pox and some may even die from the illness. Anti-viral medication can help reduce death rates and make this condition less severe for those with conditions like HIV or Lupus.
Because of these rare cases, one should never go to a doctor or hospital if you suspect chicken pox, without first informing the medical professionals of your suspicion. Hospitals, clinics, and doctor’s offices often have protocols in place for examining patients with suspected varicella. One may have to wait in one’s car or come in after hours to avoid passing the virus onto those who have certain illnesses, or who are pregnant.
The varicella vaccination is now frequently given to children. Some children, however, cannot receive the vaccination due to allergies. Approximately 80% of those who receive the vaccine are immune to the virus. The other 20% may get the virus in a much less severe form. In most cases, a single case of chicken pox makes one immune to the illness for life. However, in rare occasions, one may get a second case.