Updated 11 February 2021

What is Varicella – Chickenpox?

Image of patient with Chickenpox
Varicella or Chickenpox is a viral infection accompanied by a mild fever and characterised by the formation of pimple-like skin rashes that are both itchy and blistering in nature. The varicella zoster virus is responsible for this health condition, and this virus can affect both children and adults. Chickenpox is usually a mild infection in otherwise healthy young children. However when it comes to adults, varicella can be a quite serious illness to both treat and manage.  The severity of varicella cannot be underestimated as this disease is known to be responsible for other severe ailments. Common amongst these serious health concerns include encephalitis, brain damage, pneumonia, and scarring of the skin. Chickenpox can even lead to death in more severe cases. The varicella zoster virus tends to remain dormant in the body long after a person has fully recovered from chickenpox. However this virus can become active at some point in a person's life, resulting in a condition known as herpes zoster or shingles.

 What are the Symptoms of Chickenpox?

 The most common symptoms of chickenpox infection in children include:
  • Development of skin rash - after a child has come into contact with someone infected with chickenpox, the virus goes into an incubation period, which can be between 1 to 2 weeks before symptoms commence.
  • Mild Fever, sore throat and other respiratory symptoms,
  • Irritability - this feeling is common amongst children. They tend to be uncomfortable, restless, and anxious.
  • Uncontrolled itching - the appearance of the skin rash is often followed by uncontrolled itching.
  • Blistering - the skin rashes often become blisters which burst and then crust over.
  • General Malaise - children tend to be tired, fatigued, and dull in their disposition and appearance when they have chickenpox.

How is Chickenpox Transmitted?

Anyone can be affected by chickenpox, and age is not a factor when it comes to contracting the infection. While the infection tends to be mild in children and full recovery is normally swift, the same cannot be said about the infection in adults, especially in adults with a compromised immune system. Chickenpox is also known to effect newborn infants, and this health condition can be life threatening, since babies do not have a fully developed immune system. Pregnant women who have chickenpox for the very first time can transmit the infection to their unborn infant. They can give birth to babies with a severe form of chickenpox which can result in damage to the nervous system, eyes, limbs, and/or skin of the infant. Apart from mother to child transmission, the varicella zoster virus can also be transmitted from infected individuals to others when they sneeze or cough. The virus is active in nasal or oral droplets and the unsuspecting victim can be infected when they breathe in the virus. The fluid filled blisters associated with a chickenpox infection are highly contagious and people can be infected with the virus when they come into direct bodily contact with an infected person's skin blisters. This can be by way of sharing bedding, clothing, utensils, towels, and any other object that can serve as a mode of transmission. This is why a person with chickenpox is likely to quickly spread the infection to other members of their household. Children with chickenpox are often advised to stay at home and avoid going to public places including daycare, and school.

Testing & Diagnosing Chickenpox 

A doctor usually diagnoses chickenpox from a physical examination. In the event that tests need to be conducted, the fluid in a skin blister is swabbed, then the sample collected is taken to a laboratory and checked to see if the varicella zoster virus is present.
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Treatment of Chickenpox

Without any form of treatment, a person with a mild chickenpox infection would usually fully recover within two weeks. Home care works wonders in providing relief to individuals with chickenpox. Typically, if you have chickenpox you should:
  • Get plenty of rest as well as sleep,
  • Bathe with lukewarm warm and add either oatmeal or baking soda to the water,
  • Make use of lotions or creams like calamine lotion, which helps to ease itching,
  • Anti-viral medication is sometimes given to treat chickenpox
  • Take paracetamol to help reduce the fever.
In the case of pregnant women that have never been infected with the varicella zoster virus before and who have never been vaccinated for chickenpox, it is extremely important that you see a doctor if you have come into contact with someone with chickenpox. In these situations your doctor may give medication to prevent chickenpox. The chickenpox vaccine can help prevent people from getting chickenpox and shingles.

Recovery from Chickenpox

Like most viruses, varicella cannot be treated with antibiotics. Varicella will run its course like the common cold or flu and will usually resolve on its own without any treatment. A full recovery from a mild chickenpox infection is possible without treatment within a two week period. While recovering from chickenpox it is very important to take certain precautions to prevent the spread of the disease in your household and beyond. To this end, make sure to avoid going to public places when you have the infection. Avoid going to parks, school, daycare, work or anywhere other people are likely to converge. Make sure that when you cough or sneeze, you do so by covering your mouth and nose. Wash your hands with clean running water and soap at all times. In addition, do not share utensils, cups, plates, bedding, towels, clothing, and anything that you come in contact with. This also includes your mobile phone and glasses. You should also note that only your doctor can declare that you have fully recovered from a chickenpox infection, so do not assume that you are fully recovered just because you no longer feel ill. 
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