Chicken Pox (Herpes Varicella Zoster)
Once a common childhood illness, chicken pox is an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. At one time, approximately four million children in the U.S. contracted chicken pox each year and nearly 11,000 people were hospitalized. Because a vaccine now exists to prevent chicken pox, the number of cases and hospitalizations has declined.
When chicken pox does occur, it is a highly contagious illness and anyone who is not immune could catch the disease. Certain groups fall in high risk categories of developing complications from chicken pox including infants, teens, adults, pregnant women and anyone with a suppressed immune system.
Chicken Pox and Shingles
If you have previously had chicken pox, the varicella-zoster virus can remain in your nerve cells and lie dormant for years. If the virus reactivates you can develop shingles, a painful band of blisters usually on your trunk. Estimates suggest that one in ten adults who have had chicken pox will have shingles at some point.
Chicken Pox and Pregnancy
Pregnant women who develop chicken pox, especially in the first 20 weeks, can pass the illness on to the fetus, increasing the risks of complications and birth defects. When you contract chicken pox later in pregnancy or right before delivery, the newborn can face dangerous health complications. If you had chicken pox at any point prior to pregnancy, you are immune and will pass this immunity on to the baby through the placenta.
If you are not immune to chicken pox, symptoms usually appear within 10 to 20 days of exposure. The most common sign, an itchy rash, occurs in three stages. First, raised pink or red bumps appear. Next, the bumps become fluid-filled blisters called vesicles. Finally, the sores crust over and produce a scab. These stages can happen simultaneously. In an average case the patient has between 100 and 300 blisters.
Other symptoms may accompany the rash, such as:
- A dry cough
- General fatigue
- Loss of appetite
In healthy individuals, chicken pox just needs to run its course. For people in high risk categories a health care provider may prescribe medication that will shorten the duration and lessen the severity of the case.
Tips for making chicken pox patients more comfortable include:
- Apply topical creams or ointments
- Do not scratch
- Get plenty of rest
- Request an antihistamine for itching
- Take warm oatmeal or baking soda soaking baths
- Treat any fever with ibuprofen or acetaminophen
The Varivax vaccine offers the best protection against chicken pox. Since the vaccine was developed, cases of chicken pox in children have dropped about 70 to 90 percent. Because chicken pox spreads through close contact with an infected person, wash hands frequently and avoid anyone who has the illness.