What is chicken pox?
Chicken pox is an extremely common viral disease that begins with mild flu-like symptoms and then causes an itchy rash on the skin.
It is easily spread by coughing or coming into contact with the liquid in the blisters that form on the skin. In children, the illness can be relatively minor; for adults, especially pregnant women, it can be quite serious. A vaccination is available.
Chicken pox is a highly contagious viral disease caused by the herpes zoster virus. After experiencing flu-like symptoms, a rash breaks out on your body. Then, blisters form and turn into scabs which make you feel very uncomfortable and itchy.
You typically get chicken pox by coming into contact with an infected person. This may be through airborne germs (coughing or sneezing) when they have the virus in its early stages, or through direct contact with the chicken pox blisters on their skin. You will usually show symptoms within two weeks.
The treatment for chicken pox is bed rest, hydration and easing the discomfort of the rash – which can become very itchy and, if scratched, leave scars.
Symptoms of chicken pox
Chicken pox symptoms include a sudden onset of:
- runny nose
- mild fever
- listlessness and generally feeling unwell
As the virus develops, the rash spreads from the chest to the arms and legs. Then, blisters appear that burst and form a crust that is very itchy. Throughout the illness, the rash can be in various stages on different parts of the body.
Complications of chicken pox include the possibility of developing bacterial infections such as cellulitis, pneumonia or encephalitis (swelling of the brain); however serious complications are less likely in children.
There are also serious complications for pregnant women; and for newborn babies if the mother was infected at the time of the child’s birth. However, 9 out of 10 pregnant women have immunity against chickenpox and there is a 3 in 1000 chance of becoming infected during pregnancy.
Treatment of chicken pox
When you have chicken pox, it is very hard to resist the urge to scratch the blisters. Yet scratching the blisters leads to more discomfort and increases the possibility of scarring. To help reduce the urge to itch, you can:
- Gently pat the blisters.
- Apply soothing lotions such as calamine.
- Run a bath and add either a cup of bicarbonate soda or oats tied in a stocking.
It is also important to keep fluids up and take paracetamol for any associated fever.
To avoid infecting others, you should stay at home and rest for up to five days after all the blisters have dried.
Vaccines are available for chicken pox and are highly recommended. If you were not vaccinated as a child, visit your doctor for a varicella vaccination. Free vaccinations are offered to children up to the age of 14; although this varies depending on which state or territory you live in.
Chicken Pox and Shingles
As well as causing chickenpox, the VZV can cause shingles in some people who have had chickenpox. Following an attack of chickenpox, the virus becomes latent (lies dormant) in nerve cells in the body. The dormant virus may reactivate and give rise to an attack of shingles later in life.
People who have never had chickenpox illness or been immunised against chickenpox can get chickenpox (not shingles) if they come into contact with the fluid in the blisters of a person with shingles.
Further information and sources