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Chickenpox is a contagious disease caused by the varicella zoster virus. It is more common in children than adults. A child who has been vaccinated can still develop a case of mild chickenpox, which may go undetected by his or her caretakers. Some signs of chickenpox can include a fever and headache or stomachache, followed by an outbreak of red spots on the skin that eventually form blisters. The disease can usually be treated at home, and only in the rare case of a severe outbreak does someone need to seek professional medical treatment.
The chickenpox vaccine was introduced in the United States in 1995. Some people who are vaccinated sometimes experience a case of mild chickenpox, while the majority remains immune. Severe chickenpox tends to be more likely in people, including teens and adults, who have not been vaccinated. Individuals with certain immune system problems also might find it difficult to fight off such infections.
Infected people are normally contagious for one to two days before they notice a rash, up until the chickenpox blisters have crusted over. The disease can be spread by breathing, coughing, or sneezing, and through direct contact with blisters once the rash has developed. Some initial signs of chickenpox can include an overall feeling of sickness or lethargy, fever, sore throat, headache, upset stomach, or loss of appetite. Those with mild chickenpox, however, may not exhibit any obvious symptoms.
Within a few days of noticing his or her symptoms, a person usually develops a red rash that tends to appear on the face, scalp, or trunk. Over the next few days, the spots become liquid-filled blisters that eventually dry out and form scabs. New red spots may continue to appear for up to ten days.
Home treatments for mild chickenpox can include medications to treat fever or itching from blisters. To help soothe the skin, many doctors also advise the use of topical solutions, like anti-itch creams and lotions, and oatmeal baths. They warn strongly against giving aspirin or ibuprofen, due to possible adverse reactions. Acetaminophen, however, has been approved to treat fever and headache.
Common chickenpox complications can include bacterial infection, either from scratching the blisters or from failing to keep the area clean. In very rare cases, someone may have chickenpox more than once. This is referred to as a breakthrough infection. In addition, even someone who experiences only mild chickenpox is at risk for developing shingles in the future. The varicella zoster virus can remain dormant in the body until a period of stress causes it to reappear later as shingles, or herpes zoster.
Unless they have been vaccinated, teens, adults, pregnant women, and people with specific medical conditions are at the greatest risk of serious complications. Some birth defects in babies can be caused by chickenpox in early pregnancy. Furthermore, newborns can develop the disease if their mothers contract it within a few days of delivery. Chickenpox in babies younger than 12 months is rare, though, because antibodies in the mother’s uterus usually protect against it.