Chicken Pox Symptoms and Treatments

Even though there's now a vaccine, kids can still get chicken pox.

Sleeping child with chickenpox
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Chicken pox (varicella) was once a very common childhood infection. Some 4 million people would get the disease every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, leading to about 100 deaths annually.

Since the introduction of the chicken pox vaccine, however, the number of chicken pox infections has tumbled. Between 1995, when the vaccine was first introduced and 2005, the number of chicken pox cases in the U.S. had dropped by about 90 percent, the CDC reported.


Chicken pox symptoms are well known by most parents and include an itchy rash that is usually concentrated over the child's chest, abdomen, back, face, and upper arms and legs, a fever that can be as high as 105 degrees, a headache, and lack of appetite.

Although many viral infections can cause a fever and rash, chicken pox causes a very recognizable rash with red bumps that turn into fluid-filled blisters, and scab or crust over. Kids with chicken pox usually get new crops of these red bumps over the first three days of being sick, so that they will have a rash in many different stages of development -- some simple bumps, some blisters, and some scabs. It's a pretty miserable experience, but once a kid's rash has crusted over, they're no longer considered contagious.

It is important to note that a child can get the chicken pox rash almost anywhere, including inside their mouth or on their scalp.


The diagnosis of chicken pox is usually easy if children have the classic rash and fever, especially if they have had recent exposure to someone else with chicken pox within the 10-day to two-week incubation period.

Milder cases can be much more difficult to recognize, particularly if the child has had the chicken pox vaccine.

This can lead to the child having a very mild course of chicken pox. These children have few bumps and usually don't have a fever.


For most kids, once they've got the pox, there's not much to do except ride it out and make them as comfortable as possible. Acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol) is recommended in age-appropriate doses to treat fever. Note that it is very important to avoid aspirin and aspirin-containing products because of the risk of Reye's syndrome.

For the itching, an oral antihistamine like Benadryl and topical medications like Calamine lotion can provide some relief.

Acyclovir, an antiviral drug that can be used to treat chicken pox, is usually reserved for older teens or other children who are thought to be at risk for severe complications of chicken pox. The main concern is that even when started early in the course of a chicken pox infection and when it is given four times a day, acyclovir only shortens symptoms by about a day or so.


Chicken pox is often thought of as a mild childhood illness. That is why even in this day of a chicken pox vaccine, some parents refuse the vaccine and instead take their kids to "chicken pox parties" so that they can get infected and develop natural immunity.

Unfortunately, chicken pox infections aren't aren't always so mild. Although not common, complications can include pneumonia, encephalitis, Reye's syndrome, hospitalization, and in some cases, even death.

Secondary skin infections are a more common complication of chicken pox and can include infection with S. aureus, MRSA, or group A beta-hemolytic streptococci.

Kids are especially at risk for complications from chicken pox if they have weakened immune systems, like one would see in chemotherapy patients or HIV-positive patients. Congenital chicken pox and neonatal chicken pox can also be serious infections.


Varivax, the chicken pox vaccine, has been available since 1995 to prevent chicken pox vaccines.

It is a live vaccine that is given to children beginning when they are 12 months old. A booster dose of the chicken pox vaccine is also recommended when children are four years old to prevent the mild cases of chicken pox that sometimes occur when kids only get one dose of the vaccine. Older children should get a  booster too, if they didn't get it at age 4.

What to Expect After Infection

After a chicken pox infection, the virus can stay dormant in your child's body. There's a chance it can become reactivated later, causing a varicella zoster shingles infection. Shingles infections are possible, but less common, after receiving the chicken pox vaccine.

Chicken pox scabs can take anywhere from five to 20 days to heal and go away. It is important that your child not pick off these scabs, tempting as it might be, as that can lead to scarring and a secondary.

Although most children become immune to chicken pox once they get infected, it is possible, but rare, to get chicken pox more than once, especially if they got their first infection at a very young age.