What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a highly infectious disease that usually occurs during childhood. By adulthood, more than 90 percent of Americans have had chickenpox. Since the mid-1990s, most children have been vaccinated against the infection.

The disease is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), a form of the herpes virus. Transmission occurs from person-to-person by direct contact or through the air by coughing or sneezing.

Until 1995, chickenpox infection was a common occurrence, and almost everyone had been infected by the time he or she reached adulthood. However, the introduction of the chickenpox vaccine in 1995 has caused a decline in the incidence of chickenpox in all ages, particularly in children ages one through four years. The varicella vaccine can help prevent this disease, and two doses of the vaccine are recommended for children, adolescents, and adults who are not already immune to chickenpox (have already had the disease).

What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

Symptoms are usually mild among children, but may be life threatening to infants, adults, and people with impaired immune systems. The following are the most common symptoms of chickenpox. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

The symptoms of chickenpox may resemble other skin problems or medical conditions. If a person who has been vaccinated against the disease is exposed, then he or she may still get a milder illness with a limited and less severe rash and mild or no fever. Always consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.

How is chickenpox spread?

Once infected, chickenpox may take 10 to 21 days to develop. Chickenpox is contagious for one to two days before the appearance of the rash and until the blisters have dried and become scabs. The blisters usually dry and become scabs within four to five days of the onset of the rash, but there are usually several new crops of blisters developing during this time period. Children should stay home and away from other children until all of the blisters have scabbed over.

Family members who have never had chickenpox have a 90 percent chance of becoming infected when another family member in the household is infected. How is chickenpox diagnosed?

Chickenpox is usually diagnosed based on a complete medical history and physical examination of your child. The rash of chickenpox is unique, and usually a diagnosis can be made from a physical examination.

What is the treatment for chickenpox?

Specific treatment for chickenpox will be determined by your child's doctor based on:

Treatment for chickenpox may include:

Children should not scratch the blisters, as this could lead to secondary bacterial infections. Keep your child's fingernails short to decrease the likelihood of scratching.