What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a highly contagious illness that usually occurs in children, although adults can also be affected. It causes a rash on the skin with blisters, which can be very itchy.

It is caused by the virus, varicella-zoster, which also causes shingles.

How do you catch chickenpox?

The infection is transferred from one person to another through direct contact with broken chickenpox blisters and through airborne droplets.

There is usually an incubation period of between 10 and 20 days. In other words, a person may become infected with chickenpox, however symptoms will not appear until 10 to 20 days later.

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What are the symptoms?

Before the rash appears, there may be a number of flu-like symptoms or a general feeling of unwell.

Small red spots will form which will turn into blisters within hours. These blisters will then turn into scabs within a day or two. New blisters may appear after another three to six days have elapsed.

Both the rash and blisters will be itchy and will usually appear on the body and face first. Later, they may spread to the limbs and scalp and even to the mouth and genitals.

Chickenpox usually lasts for seven to 10 days in children and longer in adults.

Adults can take longer to recover and are also more likely than children to suffer complications. Those at particular risk of complications include pregnant women who have never had chickenpox and those with a weak immune system.

How can it be treated?

Chickenpox usually runs its course without any complications.

Once caught, the person should stay at home. They should not scratch the rash, however this is easier said than done, particularly in the case of children. If necessary, the patient's nails should be trimmed or they should be made to wear gloves or mittens to prevent them from scratching.

Calamine lotion can be used to ease the itchiness.

A lot of attention should be paid to the personal hygiene of the person who is infected, as bacteria can infect the blisters, leading to complications.

The patient should be kept in a cool environment, as heat and sweat can make the itching worse.

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Are there any after-effects?

Most people will get over chickenpox without experiencing any complications, however the scabs may leave scars on the skin.

In very rare cases, serious complications, such as meningitis and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), can occur.

Once a person has had chickenpox, they are immune to it for the rest of their life, although the virus may return later in life as shingles.

A person who has active shingles can infect another person with chickenpox. However they cannot give shingles to somebody else.

Is there a chickenpox vaccine available?

Yes, the vaccine, Varivax, helps to protect against chickenpox. However it is not suitable for everybody. For example, it is only given to children over the age of 12 months and it cannot be given to pregnant women. It is not normally given to women who are breastfeeding either.

Children aged 12 months to 12 years require one dose of the vaccine. However anyone aged 13 or older needs two doses. The second dose should be given four to eight weeks after the first dose. You may not be protected against the chickenpox virus until the second dose has been given.

The vaccine can be administered by a GP or a nurse who has been trained in the use of vaccines.

If you have any queries about the vaccine or chickenpox in general, contact your GP.

Reviewed: September 27, 2006