Chickenpox is one of the most common childhood viral infections and in most cases it is a mild disease. However complications arising from chickenpox can be quite severe and like other childhood diseases, it can be prevented with the proper vaccination. Chickenpox is highly contagious and affects most children within the first 10 years of life. In adults, the disease can be more severe but complications are usually rare aunless the person is immunocompromised like in HIV/AIDS patients.
Causes of Chickenpox
Chickenpox is caused by the Varicella zoster virus which belongs to the herpes family of viruses. Although the virus is related to other herpes virus, chickenpox should not be confused with infections caused by other herpes virus like genital herpes. The chickenpox virus may be spread through mucus from the nose when sneezing or saliva from the mouth. It can also be spread by making contact with the secretions from the chickenpox rash and for this reason, a person with a chickenpox infection should be isolated. The person is contagious for about 10 to 14 days but may exhibit non-specific symptoms for up to 10 days prior to the skin rash.
Pregnant women should always be cautious of chickenpox as it can affect the unborn child leading to many complications.
Signs and Symptoms of Chickenpox
The main symptoms associated with chickenpox is a red, itchy rash with small ‘water pimples’. Initially the rash may appear like an insect or mosquito bite or even be mistaken for an allergy. This rash then develops into vesicles – fluid-filled blisters which burst and crust. The rash may first appear on the head (scalp), face, chest and back. Later it may spread to the arms and legs.
The presence of other non-specific symptoms should alert you to a case of chickenpox in addition to the itchy rash. These symptoms include :
- General feeling of being unwell.
- Loss of appetite.
- Aches and pains.
- Dry cough.
The rash may become infected by bacteria and this secondary bacterial infection will need to be treated separately from the chickenpox itself. The chickenpox virus can remain latent on the nerve cells for many years after the infection and reactivate at a later stage to cause a disease known as shingles. This is commonly seen in adults who are stressed, experiencing any dip in their natural immunity or HIV/AIDS patients. Chickenpox may also lead to pneumonia or inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) although this is not common.
Treatment of Chickenpox
In most cases, chickenpox does not require any medical treatment. Healthy children and adults should have strict bed rest, eat well and drink plenty of fluids while they recover from the infection. It is important not to go to school or work during this time. Your doctor may prescribe antihistamines for the itching although this will only offer symptomatic relief. Calamine lotion is often used for the rash, both to ease the itching and to prevent a secondary bacterial infection.
In cases of chickenpox pneumonia or in high risk groups, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medicines for the chickenpox infection. This may also be necessary for neurological complications of chickenpox and in immunocompromised patients. Antibiotics and an antibacterial cream may be necessary if the skin rash becomes infected with bacteria. It is important not to use aspirin in children and teenagers with chickenpox as it can lead to a complication known as Reye’s syndrome.
Prevention of Chickenpox
The most effective method of prevention is to have the chickenpox vaccine. This vaccine is not mandatory and you may not get it through public clinics. However you can request the chickenpox vaccine from a private doctor and it may also be advisable to consider the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. It is important to bear in mind that while the MMR vaccine is a 3-in-1 vaccine, it does not offer you protection against chickenpox. Stay away from any person who is infected with the chickenpox although this may be difficult because the infection is contagious prior to the appearance of the skin rash so you may not know who is infected.