Chickenpox is a common childhood illness caused by the initial infection with varicella zoster virus (VZV). Red, itchy spots usually appear all over the body. They are accompanied by flu-like symptoms. Eventually, the spots turn into fluid-filled blisters that crust over to form scabs, which finally drop off. Chickenpox is very contagious, and an infected child should stay at home. Kids with eczema or a weak immune system may suffer from a more severe rash. In general, young children tend to have a mild illness with fewer blisters than older kids or adults.
Symptoms of chickenpox
- Fever (around 38.3°-38.8°C)
- Sore throat
- Stomach pain
- Red, itchy skin rash that changes appearance and location. But all stages can appear on the body at the same time:
- In the beginning, the rash is found on the back or abdomen and face.
- Later it spreads on the whole body, e.g. scalp, inside the ears and mouth, on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, genitals.
- The rash starts as multiple small red bumps that appear in crops. This condition usually lasts 2 to 4 days.
- Then they change into thin-walled blisters that contain fluid.
- The walls break and leave open sores.
- The sores eventually crust over and become dry, brown scabs.
Severe symptoms in adults:
- Pain while nodding and lowering the head (with suspected meningitis)
- Phlegm and shortness of breath (with suspected pneumonia)
- Severe abdominal pain, flatulence (with suspected gastrointestinal complications)
Causes and origin of chickenpox
About 90% of people who have not previously had chickenpox will become infected when they are exposed to the virus that is transmitted by airborne infection – sometimes without direct contact. If a person hasn’t had chickenpox before, he/she can also catch it from someone with shingles (caused by the same virus). But it doesn’t work the other way around: Nobody catches shingles from someone with chickenpox.
A patient with chickenpox is most infectious from one to two days before the rash appears, until all the blisters have crusted over. This normally takes five to six days from the beginning of the rash. The disease is spread very easily from the patient. When the blisters break open, they can contaminate the surrounding areas. If another person touches the respective object or surface and then the face, the virus may be transferred.
The incubation period is typically 14 days, but this can vary from patient to patient – from 7 days, up to 21 days.
Consequences of chickenpox
Complications in healthy children with chickenpox are seldom encountered. Once in a while the blisters may become infected with bacteria.
In rare cases, serious bacterial infections involving the skin, lungs, bones, joints, and the brain can occur, particularly in adults with a weak immune system. The consequences may be seizures, loss of consciousness, a lifelong disability or even death.
In addition, chickenpox germs in adults that remain in the body may cause herpes zoster (shingles).
Chickenpox in a pregnant woman endangers the unborn child. Up to the 20th week of pregnancy, there is a potential risk of one percent that the baby may develop malformation of the limbs, growth disorders or congenital cataract. If the mother gets infected with chickenpox five days before or up to two days after birth, the danger for the untreated child can be very high. Special treatment is necessary because the course of disease in a newborn baby is very severe; the mortality risk amounts to 30 percent.
Prevention and therapy of chickenpox
However, there is no cure for this childhood illness, and the varicella zoster virus normally clears up by itself without any treatment. But there are ways of treating the symptoms, especially the bad itching.
It is important for all patients to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Sugar-free ice lollies for kids kill two birds with one stone: In this way the child gets fluids and the ice soothes a sore mouth with chickenpox spots in it. Soups that are not too hot anymore can be swallowed easily. But salty meals should be avoided.
Pain and itch relief
If the child suffers from pain or has a high fever, a mild painkiller, such as paracetamol, can help. But kids should never be treated with aspirin if they have chickenpox. If they have asthma or stomach problems, ibuprofen should also be avoided. For a kid younger than three months, the doctor has to decide which pain killer would be the best for the baby. However, if there is any other doubt, a physician must be definitely consulted.
The often bad itching can be alleviated by moist cool compresses. To decrease the risk of further infection and scarring, the kids’ fingernails should be cut so that they don’t scratch the pustules. The rash is very itchy, and cool baths or calamine lotion may help to manage the itching. Loose-fitting, smooth, cotton fabrics might also prevent skin irritation.
Children can be protected from varicella zoster virus by getting the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine that reduces considerably the chances of catching the illness. Vaccinated children who get chickenpox might have a milder course of disease and a quicker recovery compared to those who contract the virus and aren't immunized.
Pregnant women and people with weak immune system
Pregnant women with chickenpox have to see the doctor immediately. They may need antiviral medicine or immunoglobulin treatment to prevent an aggravation of the symptoms. Immunoglobulin treatment is also given to newborn babies and people with weakened immune systems. The injection is supposed to protect patients who are at high risk of developing a severe chickenpox infection. In pregnant women, immunoglobulin treatment also reduces the risk of the unborn child becoming infected.