Chickenpox (varicella) is a viral infection that causes an itchy, blister-like rash. Chickenpox is highly contagious to people who haven't had the disease nor been vaccinated against it. Before routine chickenpox vaccination, virtually all people had been infected by the time they reached adulthood, sometimes with serious complications. Today, the number of cases and hospitalizations is down dramatically.
For most people, chickenpox is a mild disease. Still, it's better to get vaccinated. The chickenpox vaccine is a safe, effective way to prevent chickenpox and its possible complications.
Chickenpox consists of an itchy, red rash that breaks out on the face, scalp, chest, back and, to a lesser extent, arms and legs. The spots quickly fill with a clear fluid, rupture and then turn ...
Chickenpox infection usually lasts about five to 10 days. The rash is the telltale indication of chickenpox. Other signs and symptoms, which may appear one to two days before the rash, include:
Once the chickenpox rash appears, it goes through three phases:
New bumps continue to appear for several days. As a result, you may have all three stages of the rash — bumps, blisters and scabbed lesions — at the same time on the second day of the rash. Once infected, you can spread the virus for up to 48 hours before the rash appears, and you remain contagious until all spots crust over.
The disease is generally mild in healthy children. In severe cases, the rash can spread to cover the entire body, and lesions may form in the throat, eyes and mucous membranes of the urethra, anus and vagina. New spots continue to appear for several days.
When to see a doctor
Also, be sure to let your doctor know if any of these complications occur:
Chickenpox, which is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, is highly contagious, and it can spread quickly. The virus is transmitted by direct contact with the rash or by droplets dispersed into the air by coughing or sneezing.
Your risk of catching chickenpox is higher if you:
Most people who've been vaccinated against chickenpox or who've had chickenpox are immune to the virus.
Chickenpox is normally a mild disease. But it can be serious and can lead to complications, especially in high-risk people. Complications include:
Who's at risk?
Chickenpox and pregnancy
If you're pregnant and not immune to chickenpox, talk to your doctor about the risks to you and your unborn child.
Chickenpox and shingles
Shingles can lead to its own complication — a condition in which the pain of shingles persists long after the blisters disappear. This complication, called postherpetic neuralgia, can be severe.
A shingles vaccine (Zostavax) is available and is recommended for adults age 60 and older who have had chickenpox.
Preparing for your appointment
Call your family doctor if you or your child has signs and symptoms common to chickenpox. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
Information to gather in advance
Questions to ask your doctor about chickenpox include:
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Rest as much as possible, and avoid contact with others. Chickenpox is highly contagious until skin lesions have fully crusted.
Tests and diagnosis
Doctors generally diagnose chickenpox based on the telltale rash.
If there's any doubt about the diagnosis, chickenpox can be confirmed with laboratory tests, including blood tests or a culture of lesion samples.
Treatments and drugs
In otherwise healthy children, chickenpox typically requires no medical treatment. Your doctor may prescribe an antihistamine to relieve itching. But for the most part, the disease is allowed to run its course.
If you're at high risk of complications
If you or your child falls into a high-risk group, your doctor may suggest an antiviral drug such as acyclovir (Zovirax) or another drug called immune globulin intravenous (IGIV). These medications may lessen the severity of the disease when given within 24 hours after the rash first appears. Other antiviral drugs, such as valacyclovir (Valtrex) and famciclovir (Famvir), also may lessen the severity of the disease, but they have been approved for use only in adults. In some cases, your doctor may recommend getting the chickenpox vaccine after exposure to the virus. This can prevent the disease or lessen its severity.
Don't give anyone with chickenpox — child or adult — any medicine containing aspirin because this combination has been associated with a condition called Reye's syndrome.
Lifestyle and home remedies
To help ease the symptoms of an uncomplicated case of chickenpox, follow these self-care measures.
Relieve the itch and other symptoms
Don't give aspirin to anyone with chickenpox because it can lead to a serious condition called Reye's syndrome. And don't treat a high fever without consulting your doctor.
The chickenpox (varicella) vaccine is the best way to prevent chickenpox. Experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that the vaccine provides complete protection from the virus for nearly 90 percent of young children who receive it. When the vaccine doesn't provide complete protection, it significantly lessens the severity of the disease.
The chickenpox vaccine (Varivax) is recommended for:
If you've had chickenpox, you don't need the chickenpox vaccine. A case of the chickenpox usually makes a person immune to the virus for life. It's possible to get chickenpox more than once, but this isn't common. However, if you're older than 60, talk to your doctor about the shingles vaccine.
The chickenpox vaccine isn't approved for:
Talk to your doctor if you're unsure about your need for the vaccine. If you're planning on becoming pregnant, consult with your doctor to make sure you're up to date on your vaccinations before conceiving a child.
Is it safe and effective?
Last Updated: 2013-03-26
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