Chickenpox: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

Although it is not as common as it was in the 1990s, parents today still need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of Chickenpox.

Keep reading to get all of the latest information on the causes, prevention, treatment, and symptoms of Chickenpox in the United States today.

What is Chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a highly contagious communicable disease that was extremely prevalent in the United States before the introduction of the Chickenpox vaccine. Chickenpox can be mild or moderate and can develop into more serious complications and even death.

Today, Chickenpox affects fewer than 150,000 individuals per year in the United States, down from a peak of 4 million cases annually in the early 1990s. The immunization for Chickenpox was introduced in 1995 and continues to keep rates at bay today.

Chickenpox causes a red, itchy rash that produces fluid-filled blisters that scab over before eventually falling off. Chickenpox spots can even turn into permanent scars, and adults who have had Chickenpox in childhood can develop a rash known as Shingles.

Cause of Chickenpox

Chickenpox is caused by a virus called the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). The virus spreads rapidly among those who are exposed and have not been immunized. Once a child has recovered from Chickenpox, they develop immunity against the virus.

Chickenpox is the most contagious in the first 2-5 days of infection (before developing the distinctive rash) and remains contagious until all of the spots scab over.

Chickenpox cases peak in winter and spring, especially between March and May, in conjunction with flu season. It is most common in children under the age of 10.

Children who have been vaccinated can still get sick, although these cases of “breakthrough Chickenpox” usually have milder symptoms with fewer or no blisters.

The Varicella virus can reactivate as Shingles in adults who have had Chickenpox and can then cause Chickenpox to develop in those who are not already immune.

Symptoms of Chickenpox

The most distinctive feature of Chickenpox is a red rash that turns into itchy, fluid-filled blisters. These blisters will eventually turn into scabs and fall off. The Chickenpox rash usually is first apparent on the chest, back, and face. It will typically then spread over the entire body and persist for about 5-10 days.

Other symptoms of Chickenpox in children can be mild or severe and may include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Stomachache
  • Nausea

A physical exam can help identify signs of Chickenpox, and testing is usually not needed to confirm a diagnosis of Chickenpox.

Treatment of Chickenpox

Home remedies are the most commonly prescribed treatment for children with Chickenpox. Treatment options include oatmeal baths, calamine lotion, and baking soda baths. Most cases of Chickenpox resolve within a week or 2.

Parents can help assist their child’s recovery by offering plenty of fluids, ensuring adequate rest, and relieving symptoms through over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as Tylenol. (Ibuprofen is not recommended for use during Chickenpox due to a small increased risk of severe skin reactions, and Aspirin should be avoided in children as well.) If needed, your child’s doctor can prescribe medications such as chlorpheniramine to help combat severe itch and pain.

Since Chickenpox is a virus, it can be treated by antiviral medication in some cases, particularly in at-risk groups such as infants and pregnant women. While this medication does not cure Chickenpox, it can help make symptoms less severe. Talk to your child’s doctor about receiving antiviral medication for Chickenpox.

Children who have weakened immune systems are at a higher risk of developing complications and should be monitored extra closely when they have Chickenpox.

(Pregnant women are also at risk and should consider receiving a Varicella booster.)

In rare cases, Chickenpox can cause serious complications, including pneumonia or encephalitis. The risk of hospitalization and death from Chickenpox is higher in teenagers and adults. Bacterial skin infections are also possible, so be sure to keep your child’s blisters and scabs clean and discourage scratching.

Contact your child’s doctor in Littleton ASAP if you have any questions or concerns about Chickenpox treatment. And if you see any signs of serious illness, such as a persistent high fever, dehydration, or infection, be sure to visit your local emergency department right away.

Prevention of Chickenpox

The virus that causes Chickenpox is easily spread through respiratory droplets, saliva, skin-to-skin contact, or touching a contaminated surface. It can also spread from mother to baby during pregnancy, labor, or nursing.

Measures to help prevent Chickenpox include:

  • Ensuring your child receives all of their immunizations on schedule – which includes the Varicella vaccine
  • Avoiding people who are symptomatic
  • Avoiding crowds or wearing a mask in crowds
  • Practicing good hygiene– such as frequent handwashing
  • Boosting your child’s immune system through a healthy diet and vitamins

It is important to note that parents should not participate in “Chickenpox parties” in which they purposely expose their child to the Varicella virus in order to “get it over with.” Since some children can develop serious complications from Chickenpox, parents should never take the risk of purposely exposing their child to the virus.

If you think your child may have come down with a case of Chickenpox, give us a call today to discuss treatment with one of our friendly, board-certified pediatricians.