How to Treat, Prevent and Spot the Symptoms of Chickenpox

Symptoms include a fever and itchy blisters

Sleeping child with chickenpox
Mieke Dalle/Getty Images

Chickenpox is a highly contagious illness that should become much less a part of childhood as more children are given the Varivax, or chicken pox, vaccine. Chicken pox is caused by the varicella zoster virus and occurs most commonly in late winter or early spring. Unvaccinated children usually develop symptoms about 10 to 21 days after being exposed to someone with chickenpox (incubation period).

How Chicken Pox Develops

Chicken pox is spread by both direct ​contact with an infected person and through the airborne spread of respiratory secretions.

Since infected persons are contagious for one to two days before they even develop a rash, your child may have been exposed to someone with chickenpox without knowing. You can also get chicken pox after having direct contact with someone who has shingles or herpes zoster, a reactivation of chicken pox.

Symptoms begin with a low-grade fever, loss of appetite and decreased activity. About two days later, your child will develop an itchy rash consisting of small red bumps that start on the scalp, face, and trunk and then spread to the arms and legs (but may also occur in the mouth and genitalia).

The bumps then become blisters with clear and then cloudy fluid. After that, they become open sores and finally crust over within about 24 hours, but your child will continue to get new bumps for about four more days.

All of the chicken pox lesions should be crusted over after about six days at which time your child will no longer be contagious.

It may take another one to two weeks before all of the scabs finally heal. Once your child has had chicken pox he should have lifelong immunity.

There is no effective treatment for children who develop uncomplicated chickenpox, but if your child is given the Varivax vaccine within 72 hours (and sometimes up to five days) of being exposed to someone with chickenpox, it may help prevent him from becoming infected.

Chicken Pox Treatment

The usual treatments are aimed at making your child more comfortable and can include pain relievers, plenty of fluids, oatmeal baths, calamine lotion and oral Benadryl for severe itchiness. Also, keep your child's fingernails cut short and allow him to wear loose fitting clothing.

Treatment with acyclovir, an antiviral medication that can help to decrease the symptoms of chicken pox, should be considered for children at risk of developing a severe case of chicken pox. This includes children with pulmonary disorders, on steroid medications or with immune system problems.

Another medication, Varicella Zoster Immune Globulin (VZIG), can be given as a preventative medication to children at high risk for developing a severe case of chicken pox as soon as they are exposed to someone with chickenpox (and within 96 hours) to help prevent them from getting infected. High-risk children who are considered candidates for VZIG include those with immune system problems, pregnant women who have never had chickenpox and newborns whose mother developed chickenpox within five days before delivery or two days after delivery.

When to Call a Doctor

You should call your doctor if your child has chicken pox and the blisters become very red and tender, drain pus or if your child has a high fever for more than a few days.

Also, call if your child is inconsolable, has swollen and tender glands or is unable to drink and becoming dehydrated.

You should keep your child out of the sun while he has chicken pox and while the lesions are healing. Being in the sun can cause your child to become overheated and sweaty, which may make him more uncomfortable and increase his itching.

Also, the areas where chicken pox lesions are healing are also more prone to sunburn until they have totally healed. In addition, they are more likely to permanently scar if exposed to too much direct sunlight.

Varivax - the Chicken Pox Vaccine

Chicken pox is often thought of as a normal illness of childhood that usually only causes mild symptoms, but it can lead to serious complications, especially in young children and adults.

About 12,000 people each year are hospitalized for complications of having chicken pox and about 100 of these people die.

The chicken pox vaccine is about 85-90% effective in preventing chickenpox in children who are immunized, but it is 100% effective at preventing a moderate or severe case of chicken pox. So, while it is still possible that your child will get chickenpox after getting the vaccine, it is usually a very mild case, with a lower fever, fewer blisters and a quicker recovery than a child who wasn't immunized.

It isn't yet known how long immunity will last in children who have received the chicken pox vaccine, but current studies show immunity lasts at least twenty years since people who have received the vaccine twenty years ago are still immune. It is not currently believed that children will need a booster dose of the chickenpox vaccine, but studies are continuing to be done.

Since it was introduced in 1995, about 6 million doses of the chicken pox vaccine have been given.

As mentioned above, if your child is given the Varivax vaccine within 72 hours (and sometimes up to five days) of being exposed to someone with chickenpox, it may help prevent him from becoming infected.

Shingles

After having chickenpox, the chickenpox virus stays dormant in your body. In some children, it can become reactivated and cause shingles. The main symptoms of shingles is a rash on one side of the body that begins as a cluster of red bumps. These bumps then change into small blisters or vesicles that soon crust over. Your child may also feel itchy, but will otherwise be well. The rash usually continues to develop for a few days and then completely crust over and go away in about seven to ten days without treatment.

Children with shingles are contagious and can transmit chickenpox to others who aren't immune. Direct contact with the rash is necessary to be contagious, so he does not need to stay home from school if you can keep the rash completely covered.

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