Chicken Pox

The quintessential childhood disease

Chicken pox (sometimes written chickenpox), a highly contagious and uncomfortable viral disease, was once considered a rite of passage for all children. Now, however, vaccines are available to protect us from chicken pox infection. Complications from chicken pox are rare but can be serious when they occur in the very young, the very old, or those with weak immune systems.

What is chicken pox?

Chicken pox is a viral infection caused by the vericella zoster virus, which usually produces lifetime immunity in people who have been previously infected.


How does one get chicken pox?

Chicken pox is highly communicable and can spread through the air (from a cough or a sneeze) or through direct contact with an infected person. The chicken pox virus can be spread from two days prior to the onset of the rash until about four days after the appearance of the rash.

Who can get chicken pox?

Chicken pox is most often seen in children, but anybody who has not had chicken pox or a vericella zoster vaccine is susceptible Adult chicken pox is not seen as often only because most people contract chicken pox in childhood and develop lifetime immunity.

What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

Initial chicken pox symptoms are fever and general malaise, possibly including headache, nausea and fatigue.

The appearance of an initial lesion is the telltale sign of chicken pox. The lesions are itchy, raised red welts that develop a crusted center.

The chicken pox rash may appear on all surfaces of the body, including palms of hands, soles of feet, scalp, mucous membranes and even eyes. The number of lesions varies greatly from person to person; some people develop only a few spots while others have hundreds. Older people tend to have more lesions.

How is chicken pox treated?

The chicken pox rash can be treated with calamine lotion, topical treatments containing oatmeal, and antihistamines.

Fever and headache may be reduced with the use of acetaminophen. Aspirin should not be used for treating chicken pox because it has been associated with Reye's syndrome.

Antiviral drugs like acyclovir may be prescribed for people who do not have a normal immune system in order to shorten the duration of symptoms and prevent complications.

What are possible complications from chicken pox?

Most people do not suffer any complications from chicken pox. However, in people with weak immune systems, pneumonia is the most common complication.

What can be done to prevent chicken pox?

A chicken pox vaccine is available in both live and killed forms. Individuals with compromised immune systems (or who live with somebody with a compromised immune system who has not had chicken pox) will usually be given the killed vaccine. Since 1995, the widespread use of the chicken pox vaccine has greatly reduced the incidence of the disease.

The Shingles Chicken Pox Connection

Once a person has recovered from chicken pox, the virus lays dormant in certain nerve cells in the body, but it is capable of becoming active again. When this happens, it is called herpes zoster or shingles.

What is shingles?

Shingles is a viral infection characterized by a painful rash, usually on the torso.

How does one get shingles?

There is no separate shingles virus. Both chicken pox and shingles are caused by the vericella zoster virus, so anybody who has had chicken pox is also at risk for getting shingles.

What are the causes of shingles outbreaks?

Emotional stress or immune deficiency are considered likely precursors to shingles outbreaks, but all of the causes are not known.

What are shingles symptoms?

The eruption of an itchy and painful blistery rash on the torso (typically near the waistline, but not always), usually on one side of the body, is the most significant sign of shingles. Burning or tingling may precede the appearance of the shingles rash, and symptoms typically persist for three to five weeks.

Is shingles contagious?

Yes, in a way. A person who has not had chicken pox can contract chicken pox from a person who has an active case of shingles. However, shingles itself is not transmitted from person to person. Shingles is merely the reactivation of the vericella zoster virus that a person already has in his or her body from a prior chicken pox infection.

What is available in the way of shingles treatment?

Shingles treatment includes the administration of antiviral drugs (acyclovir, valcyclovir or famcyclovir) and the application of topical treatments for the rash, similar to those for chicken pox. A vaccine is in development for protection specifically against shingles, but it is not yet available to the public.

By Margaret Johnson Doran