Chickenpox is a common, usually benign childhood disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), a member of the herpes family. This virus causes two distinct diseases; varicella (chickenpox) is the primary infection, and later when VSV reactivates, herpes zoster (shingles).
Chickenpox is highly contagious and is spread by coughing and sneezing, by direct contact and by aerosolization of the virus from skin lesions. You can also get it by contact with the vesicle secretions from shingles.
The disease is characterized by fever and a red, itchy skin rash of that usually starts on the abdomen, back or face and then spreads to nearly all parts of the body. The rash begins as small red bumps that appear as pimples or insect bites. They then develop into thin-walled blisters that are filled with clear fluid which collapse on puncture. The blisters then breaks, crusts over, and leaves dry brown scabs.
The chickenpox lesions may be present in several stages of maturity and are more abundant on covered skin rather than exposed. Lesions may also be found in the mouth, upper respiratory tract and genitals.
Chickenpox is contagious from 1-2 days before the rash forms and continues until all the lesions are crusted over (usually about 5 days).
This disease is more serious in adults than in children. Complications of chickenpox are rare, but include pneumonia, encephalitis and secondary bacterial infections.
Infection with this virus usually gives lifelong immunity, though second attacks have been documented in immunocompromised people. The viral infection remains latent, and disease may recur years later as shingles.
To prevent this disease in children, a vaccine was licensed for use in 1995. Doctors recommend that children receive the chickenpox vaccine at 12 to 15 months and then a booster at 4 to 6 years old. The vaccine is effective at preventing mild infection in up to 85% of children and severe forms in up to 95% of children. Some kids who get immunized will still get chickenpox, though with much milder symptoms.
Some people should not get vaccinated for chickenpox; in particular pregnant women. They should wait to get the vaccine until after they give birth or women should not get pregnant until 1-3 months after vaccination.
For children older than 13 and those adults who have never had chickenpox, the chickenpox vaccine should be given in two doses at least 28 days apart.
In addition, those that have a suppressed immune system due to a disease (HIV/AIDS) or a treatment (cancer treatment or steroids) should check with their physician prior to getting immunized.
If your child does get chickenpox, you can help relieve the discomfort that comes with this illness by doing the following:
o Using cool wet compresses or giving baths in cool or lukewarm water every 3 to 4 hours for the first few days. Oatmeal baths, available at the supermarket or pharmacy, can help to relieve itching. (Baths do not spread chickenpox.)
o Patting (not rubbing) the body dry.
o Putting calamine lotion on itchy areas (but don’t use it on the face, especially near the eyes).
o Giving your child foods that are cold, soft, and bland because chickenpox in the mouth may make drinking or eating difficult. Avoid feeding your child anything highly acidic or especially salty, like orange juice or pretzels.
o Asking your doctor or pharmacist about pain-relieving creams to apply to sores in the genital area.
o Giving your child acetaminophen regularly to help relieve pain if your child has mouth blisters.
o Asking the doctor about using over-the-counter medication for itching.
Never use aspirin to reduce pain or fever in children with chickenpox because aspirin has been associated with the serious disease Reye’s syndrome, which can lead to liver failure and even death.
As much as possible, discourage kids from scratching. This can be difficult for them, so consider putting mittens or socks on your child’s hands to prevent scratching during sleep. In addition, trim fingernails and keep them clean to help lessen the effects of scratching, including broken blisters and infection.
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