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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, usually
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 August 17, 2005, issue of JAMA includes an article reporting that use of the varicella vaccine
to prevent chickenpox has greatly reduced medical expenses related to chickenpox.
This Patient Page is based on one published in the February 18, 2004, issue
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
Oatmeal baths can help relieve itching.
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 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 the varicella vaccine.
Because even healthy people can have serious complications
from chickenpox, vaccination is highly recommended.
Children should get vaccinated at 12 to 18 months of age.
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 800/232-4636 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
The JAMA Patient Page is a public service of JAMA. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate
in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For
specific information concerning your personal medical condition, JAMA suggests that you consult your physician. This page may be photocopied
noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share
with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, call 718/946-7424.
TOPIC: CHILDHOOD DISEASES
Parmet S, Lynm C, Glass RM. Chickenpox. JAMA. 2005;294(7):866. doi:10.1001/jama.294.7.866