Chickenpox is a highly contagious and common
childhood disease caused by a virus in the herpes family
of viruses called the varicella virus. The varicella virus can remain in the body for decades and
become active again in adults, causing herpes zoster (shingles).
Shingles involves the occurrence of painful skin sores along the distribution
of nerves across the trunk or face. The February 18, 2004, issue of JAMA includes an article about the effectiveness of the
varicella vaccine in preventing chickenpox.
Itchy blisters on a red base, progressing to scabs,
appear along with newer blisters, mainly on the trunk, face, and scalp and
last 5 to 10 days
Direct contact with skin sores or breathing in
the varicella virus by being around someone with chickenpox who is coughing
A person with chickenpox can spread the virus for
1 to 2 days before the rash appears and until all the blisters have formed
Calamine lotion and oatmeal baths can help relieve
Acetaminophen can be used to treat fever.
Do not use aspirin to treat symptoms associated
with chickenpox. Giving aspirin to someone with chickenpox can cause Reye syndrome—a severe disease (that can cause death)
affecting the liver and brain.
Acyclovir (a prescription
medication used to treat viral infections) may be recommended for people at
risk for developing serious complications.
Varicella zoster immune globulin (VZIG) can be given after exposure to chickenpox
to reduce its severity in people who are at risk for serious complications.
Scratching blisters can cause them to become infected.
The varicella virus can cause viral pneumonia and encephalitis (infection of the brain).
Chickenpox can sometimes be fatal, particularly
when it occurs in adults or persons with impaired immunity.
Chickenpox can be prevented by vaccination.
Because even healthy people can have serious complications
from chickenpox, vaccination is highly recommended.
Children should get vaccinated at 12 to 18 months
Older children who have not had chickenpox should
also be vaccinated.
Individuals who should not get the varicella vaccine
include children with leukemia or other cancers, people whose immune systems
may be weakened due to disease or medications, people taking high doses of
steroid medications, pregnant women, and infants younger than 1 year.
American Academy of Pediatrics 847/434-4000 http://www.aap.org
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—National
Immunization Program 800/232-2522 http://www.cdc.gov/nip/default.htm
To find this and other JAMA Patient Pages, go to the Patient Page link
on JAMA's Web site at http://www.jama.com.
Many are available in English and Spanish.
Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Dermatology,
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—National Immunization Program
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TOPIC: CHILDHOOD ILLNESSES
Parmet S, Lynm C, Glass RM. Chickenpox. JAMA. 2004;291(7):906. doi:10.1001/jama.291.7.906