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Chickenpox (Varicella)

What is chickenpox?
Where is chickenpox found?
What are the symptoms of chickenpox?
How is chickenpox spread?
How can I keep from getting chickenpox?
If I’ve been exposed to chickenpox, how long will it take for symptoms to develop?
What treatments are available for chickenpox? How serious is the disease?
Is there a vaccine for chickenpox?
How effective is the chickenpox vaccine?
How many cases of chickenpox have been reported in Kentucky?
Where can I get more information on chickenpox?

What is chickenpox?
Chickenpox used to be a common childhood infection, but now is prevented by vaccination. It is highly contagious, but rarely serious for most children. Chickenpox in newborns and those with weak immune systems can be severe. Most people have had chickenpox disease or been vaccinated by the time they are adults. However, when it does occur in adults it may be more severe.

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella zoster virus, a member of the herpes virus family.

Where is chickenpox found?
Chickenpox causes a rash, initially on the chest and face, but eventually spreads over the entire body. Most people with chickenpox have between 250 and 500 itchy blisters. Most cases of chickenpox occur in children under 15 years of age.

What are the symptoms of chickenpox? Child with chickenpox, photo courtesy of the Public Health Image Library
Symptoms of chickenpox include mild fever and generalized skin rash that begins on the chest, back, underarms, neck and face. It starts out as red bumps, which turn into blisters within several hours and then scab over after a few days

How is chickenpox spread?
Chickenpox is spread by droplets—small particles that are expelled from the nose and mouth when a person coughs or sneezes. The virus can also be spread by having direct contact with the blisters of an infected person.

How can I keep from getting chickenpox?

If I’ve been exposed to chickenpox, how long will it take for symptoms to develop?
The initial symptoms of chickenpox typically occur between 14 and 16 days after exposure.

A person with chickenpox is usually contagious from one to two days before the rash appears until the time that all of the blisters have turned into scabs, usually about five days after the rash appears.

What treatments are available for chickenpox? How serious is the disease?
Chickenpox is common in children, but can cause more serious complications in high-risk groups, including adults, infants, adolescents and people with weak immune systems from either illnesses or from medications such a long-term steroids.

Typical symptoms of chickenpox include fever, severe itching, an uncomfortable rash, dehydration and headache.

Common complications from chickenpox include infected skin lesions, other infections, dehydration from vomiting or diarrhea, exacerbation of asthma or more serious complications such as pneumonia.

Serious complications from chickenpox can include bacterial infections, pneumonia or infection of the brain (encephalitis).
Before the vaccine was commonly used, approximately 11,000 people were hospitalized and 100 people died in the U.S. each year from chickenpox and its complications.

When a pregnant woman or a person with a weak immune system who has not had chickenpox is exposed, he/she should contact a physician immediately about treatment.

Note: Do not give aspirin to a child with chickenpox. There is a risk of developing Reye syndrome (a serious condition which can cause death) when children or adolescents take aspirin for viral illnesses such as chickenpox or influenza.

Is there a vaccine for chickenpox?
A vaccine to prevent chickenpox vaccine has been available since 1995. The CDC recommends that:

The state of Kentucky requires that all children show proof that they have received the chickenpox vaccine prior to entering kindergarten.

How effective is the chickenpox vaccine?
No vaccine is 100 percent effective in preventing disease. For the chickenpox vaccine, the CDC has found that about 8 to 9 out of every 10 people who are vaccinated are completely protected from chickenpox.

In those people who are vaccinated but do get chickenpox, it with fewer skin lesions (usually less than 50) lasting only a few days, no fever or a low fever, and few other symptoms.

How many cases of chickenpox have been reported in Kentucky?
In Kentucky, doctors’ offices and laboratories are not required to report cases of chickenpox to the Health Department, but the Health Department does rely on health care providers and educators to report any unusual chickenpox activity. The presence of chickenpox in the community has decreased significantly since the vaccine was introduced.

Where can I get more information on chickenpox?
For more information online, you can visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or call the Heatlh Department at 859.363.2070.