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What Is Chickenpox?

Chickenpox (also called varicella) is a highly contagious viral disease that affects skin and mucous membranes. Most cases occur in young people, often children 2 to 8 years old. Adults usually have a more severe illness that lasts longer.

People develop immunity or resistance to chickenpox when they get it the first time and are unlikely to get it again. Some people may later develop shingles (herpes zoster), a reactivation of chickenpox virus, if their immunity weekens.

Immunizations with varicella-zoster vaccine can prevent chickenpox and shingles.

What Causes Chickenpox?

The cause is varicella-zoster herpesvirus. People catch chickenpox, when they are around someone who has it, by breathing in droplets containing virus. People also catch it by direct contact with skin lesions on infected people.

What Are the Symptoms of Chickenpox?

Symptoms develop 7 to 21 days after exposure. They include slight fever, runny nose, slight cough, headache, tiredness, and no appetite.

Red spots that appear on the body 2 to 3 days later develop into an itchy rash that forms blisters, which dry and become scabs in 4 to 5 days. People may have only a few blisters, or more than 500 may appear. Chickenpox is usually contagious 1 to 2 days before the rash and up to 6 days after blisters form. The mouth, ears, and eyes can also have ulcers.

How Is Chickenpox Diagnosed?

The health care provider will make a diagnosis by the medical history and by looking at the rash.

How Is Chickenpox Treated?

Healthy children need no specific medicine but can get symptom relief. Nonaspirin products such as acetaminophen can reduce fever. DON’T give aspirin to children with chickenpox. Antihistamines, lotions such as calamine, and oatmeal baths can reduce itching. Drinking liquids and resting are recommended. To prevent spreading chickenpox, keep children away from others until blisters have crusted.

People at high risk for severe infection and people with impaired immune systems (e.g., those with bone marrow transplants or leukemia) may get antiviral drugs to prevent complications from chickenpox.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing Chickenpox:

  • DO call your health care provider at once if you’re pregnant and think that you were exposed to chickenpox.
  • DO wash your hands regularly and wash bed linens and recently worn clothes with hot, soapy water.
  • DO keep fingernails short to prevent scratching and avoid infection.
  • DO rest, but allow quiet activity.
  • DO use nonaspirin drugs for fever.
  • DO notify school nurses and parents of playmates who may have been exposed.
  • DO use antihistamines and cool sponge baths to reduce itching.
  • DO call your health care provider if your temperature is higher than 101° F or if weakness, headache, or sensitivity to light develop.
  • DO call your health care provider if vomiting, restlessness, and irritability occur, with decreased consciousness.
  • DO know that a vaccine for chickenpox is available for those who have not yet had the disease.
  • DON’T scratch blisters or scabs.
  • DON’T expose pregnant women, newborns, elderly people, or those with low resistance to infection to chickenpox.
  • DON’T let infected children go to school or day care for at least 6 days after the first blisters appear. Dried, crusted scabs are not infectious.
  • DON’T give aspirin to children younger than 16 years because of the risk of Reye’s syndrome.

Contact the following sources:

  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
    Tel: (866) 284-4107
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics
  • U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

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