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Varicella (Chickenpox): Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Varicella (Chickenpox): Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

What is Chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a contagious illness caused by the varicella-zoster virus that causes very itchy rashes and pustulating blisters. Also known as varicella, chickenpox begins as a rash on the back, chest and facial area and develops into blisters all over the body. The infection lasts for up to two weeks (x). The virus is very contagious. However, people can only get it once and after the disease clears they are immune. However, individuals who have had chickenpox are at risk for developing a similar condition called shingles. Chickenpox is very uncomfortable, but it is not life-threatening. Rare complications may include pneumonia, Reye’s syndrome and skin infections.

Chickenpox vs. Shingles

Shingles is a condition that occurs in adult patients who have had chickenpox before. However, adults who have not had chickenpox are still at risk for shingles. The chickenpox virus remains in the system long after an individual heals from the initial infection. Years later, this virus can appear in the form of shingles, a cluster of painful blisters. The shingles have a very short life span. Adults with a weak immune system are at a high risk of developing shingles. The pain is severe and it can continue long after the blisters heal (x).

Chickenpox vs. Measles

Chickenpox and measles are extremely common in children. Both are contagious, spread through contact and cause itchy rashes. Even though they are similar, they develop from different viruses and the rashes look different. People with measles have a sore throat, fever and a white spotted rash. Chickenpox sufferers endure fever, headaches, loss of appetite, joint pain and painful, sometimes suppurating blisters over the entire body. The duration of the diseases are also different. A chickenpox patient feels relief from the accompanying symptoms once the rash appears, but a patient with measles may continue to feel significant discomfort (x).

Chickenpox Symptoms

Symptoms begin to develop two to three weeks after the patient is infected with the virus. It may present as an itchy rash, swollen glands, blisters and a fever. The infected person is very contagious a day or two before the rash appears until it dries up and it forms scabs that will begin to fall off (x).

Itchy Rash and Blisters

The most common symptom of chickenpox is the appearance of a rash that forms into itchy blisters full of fluid. These blisters can spread to all parts of the body including the mouth, genitals, throat and the eyelids. The blisters start to appear one to three weeks after the patient is exposed to the virus. Before the vesicles start to form, the patient typically experiences other symptoms:

Phases of a Chickenpox Rash

The chickenpox rash has three distinct stages (x).

  1. Pink or red raised bumps start to appear a few days after the patient contracts the infection.
  2. Fluid-filled blisters begin to form after a few weeks. Some may leak fluid.
  3. Blisters begin to dry out and scab over and eventually they flake off.
Symptoms of Chicken Pox

Causes of Chickenpox

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which belongs to the herpes virus family. The virus starts to affect the tissues in the early stages of the illness and then spreads to other parts of the body (x).

The chickenpox virus can lie dormant in the body for years and re-emerge years later in the form of shingles. Chickenpox and shingles can be extremely uncomfortable for adults and particularly dangerous for pregnant women. The virus is very contagious and it spreads quickly from person to person through any kind of contact—coughing, sneezing or touching an infected patient (x).

Who is at Risk for Contracting Chickenpox?

Anyone can contract chickenpox, but certain risk factors make some patients more likely to contract it than others. Pregnant women and people who smoke are at a higher risk for chickenpox. Patients with weak immune systems, such as cancer or HIV patients, are also more likely to get it. Infants may also get infected, as well as newborns whose mothers have not had the virus (x).

Preventing Chickenpox

Avoid all contact with a patient who is already infected with chickenpox so the infection does not spread. A chickenpox vaccine can also prevent the infection. Two vaccine doses in the early years—preferably between 12 and 15 months—and later between the ages of four and six years will help prevent it. However, the vaccine may be dangerous for certain patients (x):

  • Pregnant women
  • Patients with a serious illness
  • People who are allergic to the vaccine
  • Patients who are allergic to gelatin or neomycin
  • People who have had a recent blood transfusion
  • People with weak immune systems

Treatment for Chickenpox

Chickenpox usually lasts up to two weeks. It does not usually require any medical treatment. Doctors may prescribe antihistamines to help relieve itching. Patients may also be able to reduce their symptoms without medication. Home remedies can help relieve itching and discomfort for chickenpox patients.

Oatmeal Baths

Taking oatmeal baths may help relieve dry and itchy skin. Oatmeal soothes the skin, keeping it moist and helping to reduce itching (x).

Stay Hydrated and Eat Bland Food

Drink tons of fluids throughout the day like herbal tea and water, to prevent dehydration, and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. Eat foods with antioxidants and avoid spicy foods if you are nauseous or vomiting.

Drink Chamomile Tea

Chamomile tea can help soothe itchy rashes and its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties may help the rash to heal quicker. Steep two to three bags of tea, allow them to cool, gently tap them on the rash or add chamomile flowers to your bath water (x). Chamomile extract powder is a good supplement to use to combat the rash.

Use Essential Oils

Essential oils contain various components that soothe the skin and reduce inflammation, itching and redness. For example, lavender oil contains certain compounds that promote skin and wound healing and can reduce the chances of scarring if the patient scratches their chickenpox blisters (x).

Pain Medication  

If a chickenpox patient experiences headaches, fever or joint pain, over-the-counter medication can help relieve these symptoms. However, do not use aspirin or products that contain it. Studies show that aspirin puts children at risk for Reye’s syndrome (x). Use acetaminophen or ibuprofen instead.

See Also

Calamine Lotion

Apply calamine lotion to the rashes two to three times a day or add a cup of baking soda to bath water to relieve itching.

Avoid Scratching!

It can be very tempting to scratch when the blisters feel itchy. But it can cause more discomfort and even increase the risk of infection so avoid scratching. To keep themselves from scratching, patients can wear mittens or soft socks over their hands, especially during sleep. Keep fingernails trimmed to reduce the risk of damaging the skin.

Supplements to Boost Immunity

Vitamin C

Citrus fruits are rich in Vitamin C. It is present in cold and flu medicines as well as beauty products. It strengthens the immune system to allow the body to fight off infections, including chickenpox. As a dietary supplement, take 1,000 mg of Vitamin C powder (about ¼ tsp) every day unless a doctor recommends a different dosage.

Vitamin E

Used in several cosmetics products, Vitamin E can promote healthy skin and increase its elasticity. It also has antioxidant properties that help fight off damage in the body, making it an important supplement for the immune system. As a dietary supplement, the recommended dosage for Vitamin E powder is 500 to 1,000 mg daily with food. Follow a doctor’s instructions for taking supplements.

Vitamin A

This is an essential nutrient to the body. Vitamin A has antioxidant properties, helps cells grow and regulates the immune system. It supports vision and helps keep the skin hydrated. As a dietary supplement, take 30 mg of Vitamin A palmitate powder daily unless a doctor advises otherwise.

Chamomile Extract

This herb has been used for centuries and its flowers are even made into tea. Chamomile has high antioxidant levels that may help the immune system fight damage, including the chickenpox infection. The recommended dosage for chamomile extract is 800 mg once or twice a day with water, or following a doctor’s instructions.

The Bottom Line

Chickenpox is a condition caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This disease is highly contagious and common symptoms include a skin rash all over the body, itchy blisters, pain and fever, headaches and swollen glands. Chickenpox can be prevented by getting vaccinated and avoiding close contact with infected people. In most cases, chickenpox does not require any special medical attention and treatment may include over-the-counter medication to help with itching and relieve headaches or reduce fever. There are also home remedies that can help the patient manage pain, itching and discomfort until the rash clears. Supplements can also help manage the symptoms and boost immune system function. Always consult a doctor before starting a vitamin or supplement regimen. Supplements are not an adequate treatment for any medical condition, although they may be able to benefit overall health.

 
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