Definition & Overview

Chicken pox is a highly contagious disease that displays a variety of symptoms, such as rashes, fever, decreased appetite, cough, and a sore throat. The disease mostly affects children, but can also affect anybody of any age.

The varicella zoster virus (VZV) causes chicken pox, also referred to as a primary varicella infection. VZV belongs to the herpes virus group, and like other members of the group, VZV remains in the body after the primary infection. Because of this, those who have had chicken pox may also develop shingles in the future.

Healthy children who are infected with chicken pox should not have much difficulty recovering from the disease. However, the disease causes a significant amount of discomfort due to its flu-like symptoms. Adults who are infected with chicken pox will generally have more trouble dealing with the symptoms than children.

The disease may spread rapidly, but only in communities where majority of the members have not received chicken pox vaccinations, or who have never been infected with chicken pox. The disease cannot infect a person who has already been infected or has been vaccinated.

Although chicken pox may thrive within the body, it is believed that the disease only has a short lifespan in an open environment.

Causes of Condition & Complications

The primary cause of chicken pox is the varicella zoster virus, which can be transmitted from person to person in a variety of ways, such as sneezing, coughing, or sharing food and drinks. Another way people are infected is by touching the fluid of a blister on a person with chicken pox. Although rare, it is possible for people to be infected with chicken pox by touching the blisters of a person with shingles. Shingles is another type of disease caused by the same virus and only appears in people who have already had chicken pox.

Most children who were infected with chicken pox were able to go through the ordeal without any complications. However, complications are in fact possible. Some of the complications are pneumonia, cellulitis, bleeding disorders, encephalitis, and death. Although death and bleeding disorders rarely happen. Pneumonia mostly occurs in adults, and it can be fatal.

Complications rarely develop in pregnant women. In fact, it is rare that a pregnant woman would be infected with the disease. However, those who are infected during pregnancy usually develop severe complications, such as pneumonia, encephalitis, and hepatitis. If the infection occurred within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, there is a risk of passing the disease to the unborn child. If this happens, there is a possibility that the disease will cause abnormalities. The risk is lower if the infection occurs after the first 20 weeks.

Key Symptoms

Like any other type of virus, the varicella-zoster virus also has an incubation period, which is 14-16 days after exposure. After this period, the symptoms of the disease will soon appear. One of the first noticeable symptoms is high-grade fever between 38°C to 39.4°C. The person will normally feel sick, sluggish, and tired. Headaches, sore throat, and loss of appetite are also common. These symptoms are usually mild in children. However, teens and adults will have much stronger symptoms.

A couple of days after the first symptoms appear, a rash will develop. These will normally appear on the face, behind the ears, on the chest and abdomen, on the arms and legs, and on the scalp. In some cases, the rash may develop inside the mouth, palms of the hands, and soles of the feet.

The rash will usually begin as small spots. The spots will gradually develop into blisters, which will then become intensely itchy. Two days after the blisters appear, these will become cloudy and start to dry out, which will then fall off on their own after one or two weeks. However, the spots don’t all develop at the same time. They usually come in waves, which mean that some blisters may already be healing while new ones are still forming.

Chicken pox may also produce unusual symptoms, such a dehydration, drowsiness, chest pain, and breathing difficulties. If these symptoms appear or if the normal symptoms are too severe, you should consult your doctor immediately.

Who to See and Types of Treatment Available

Even though most people are able to recover from chicken pox without much difficulty, this does not mean that everybody will. Some people will find it more difficult, which could be because of the intensity of the symptoms or the condition of the body’s immune system.

If you, or your child, feels too weak, has a fever that lasts more than 24 hours, has severe itching, or if the rash lasts longer than 2 weeks, you should consult your doctor. You should also consult your doctor if you’re pregnant and was exposed to chicken pox.

It would be best if you can call your doctor before you proceed to his or her clinic, so that they can take the necessary precautions. Once you arrive, you may be directed to an office or anywhere where you are isolated from other patients to reduce the risk of spreading the disease.

It’s important to remember that chicken pox is a viral disease, which means that there won’t be any available forms of treatment. The treatment is normally just rest and staying hydrated. If need be, the doctor will provide treatment for the symptoms or for any complications that may have developed.

If there are complications such as pneumonia, you will likely need to be seen by a pulmonologist, or another specialist depending on the complication.

References:

  • Myers MG, Seward JF, LaRussa PS. Varicella-zoster virus. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 250.
  • American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases. Recommended immunization schedules for children and adolescents--United States, 2008. Pediatrics. 2008;121:219-220.
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