Information on the causes of chickenpox, itchy spots and chickenpox rashes.

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  1. What is Chickenpox?
  2. What Causes Chickenpox?
  3. How is Chickenpox Diagnosed?
  4. Help for Chickenpox
  5. More Information on Chickenpox

What is Chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a highly contagious, yet common disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It develops into an itchy rash with an outbreak of blisters that occurs on the scalp, face and torso. It is usually a mild illness which occurs in children but can also cause serious complications in teenagers, adults, pregnant women, newborns and people with weak immune systems.

Symptoms may appear between 10 and 21 days of the time of exposure to the virus. Chickenpox affects approximately 4 million people per year, predominantly children.

Symptoms and signs
The most common symptoms and signs of chickenpox include:

  • Mild fever
  • Headache
  • Body aches and pains
  • Abdominal pain or loss of appetitite
  • Flu-like symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat, mild cough the first two days before the rash appears
  • Rash (red spots)
  • Itching
  • Blisters filled with liquid which develops into scabs

What Causes Chickenpox?

The chickenpox virus is contagious and spreads easily from person to person. It can be transmitted through direct contact with the rash or when an infected person sprays droplets into the air during coughing or sneezing.

People with chickenpox can spread the virus during the first 2 to 5 days before the rash appears - they are most contagious from the day before and for the first few days after the rash appears.

How is Chickenpox Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of chickenpox is based on the physical symptoms, particularly the presence of a distinctive rash on the body. If you experience complications such as the rash spreading to the eyes or the rash becoming warm or tender, consult your doctor immediately.

In addition, if the rash is accompanied by a fever higher than 103F, dizziness, tremors, vomiting, loss of muscle co-ordination or coughing that worsens, get immediate medical attention.

Help and Treatment for Chickenpox

Treatment generally depends on your age, personal health and the severity of the illness. Healthy children seldom require medical treatment and home rest is usually sufficient.

Drink plenty of liquids such as water, juice or soup, particularly if there is fever. To bring the fever down, acetaminophen (Tylenol) may be administered – remember to never give aspirin to children as it may increase the risk of Reye’s disease.

Apply calamine lotion to the skin to relieve itching, keep the skin cool with compresses and lukewarm, oatmeal baths. Your health practitioner may also prescribe an antihistamine to reduce the itching.

What complications can occur during chickenpox?

People with a high risk of complications from chickenpox such as pregnant women, newborn infants or those with weakened immune systems need immediate medical attention if exposed or develop chickenpox. They may be prescribed antiviral drugs such as acyclovir or intravenous immune globulin (IGIV).

Other complications that may result from chickenpox include bacterial infections of the skin, pneumonia or inflammation of the brain (encephalitis). If you have had chickenpox as a child, there is a likelihood of developing shingles (when some of the varicella-zoster virus remains in the nerve cells and reactivates and surfaces as shingles).

Chickenpox can also cause serious complications during pregnancy. When the infection occurs early in the pregnancy or just before the birth, a number of problems such as low birth weight, fetal abnormalities such as limb abnormalities, neurological damage and scarring of the internal organs can develop.

Can chickenpox be prevented?

The easiest way to prevent chickenpox is to get the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine. The vaccination provides protection in 90% of young children who receive it. This vaccine is recommended for young children, unvaccinated older children and adults who have never had chickenpox but may have a high risk of exposure.

Young children receive two doses of the varicella vaccine. The first dose is administered between the ages 12 and 15 months and the second between ages 4 and 6 years as part of the routine childhood immunization schedule.

Children aged between 7 and 13 years and older who have not been vaccinated are required to receive two catch-up doses of the varicella vaccine.

Adults who have never had chickenpox or been vaccinated should receive two doses of the vaccine. People who have an increased risk of been exposed should also receive the vaccine – these include individuals who have professions as teachers, health care workers, child care employees, women of childbearing age and adults who live with young children.

Most people who have had chickenpox do not require the vaccine as an episode of chickenpox makes an individual develop immunity to the virus for life.

More Information on Chickenpox

Tips to relieve the discomfort of chickenpox

There are a number of things that you can do to make yourself or your child feel more comfortable. These helpful tips include:

  • Do not scratch as scratching causes scarring and increases the risk of infection
  • Keep fingernails short and clean to avoid scratching
  • Cover hands with gloves to prevent scratching
  • Add baking soda or oatmeal to a cool bath to relieve itching
  • Use cool compresses to ease the discomfort of itching
  • Get plenty of bed rest
  • Eat soft, bland foods such as soups, scrambled egg, jello if chickenpox develops in the mouth or and avoid acidic or salty foods
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