Chicken Pox

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Chickenpox (varicella) is a viral infection that causes an itchy, blister-like rash. Chickenpox is highly contagious to people who haven’t had the disease nor been vaccinated against it.

Symptoms

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headache
  • Tiredness and a general feeling of being unwell (malaise)

Once the chickenpox rash appears, it goes through three phases:

  • Raised pink or red bumps (papules), which break out over several days
  • Fluid-filled blisters (vesicles), forming from the raised bumps over about one day before breaking and leaking
  • Crusts and scabs, which cover the broken blisters and take several more days to heal

When to see a doctor

If you suspect that you or your child has chickenpox, consult your doctor. Doctor usually can diagnose chickenpox by examining the rash and by noting the presence of accompanying symptoms.

Risk factors

Your risk of catching chickenpox is higher if you:

  • Haven’t had chickenpox
  • Haven’t been vaccinated for chickenpox
  • Work in or attend a school or child care facility
  • Live with children

Most people who’ve been vaccinated against chickenpox or who’ve had chickenpox are immune to the virus.

Complications

  • Bacterial infections of the skin, soft tissues, bones, joints or bloodstream (sepsis)
  • Pneumonia
  • Inflammation of the brain (encephalitis)
  • Toxic shock syndrome
  • Reye’s syndrome for people who take aspirin during chickenpox

Who’s at risk?

Those at high risk of having complications from chickenpox include:

  • Newborns and infants whose mothers never had chickenpox or the vaccine
  • Adults
  • Pregnant women who haven’t had chickenpox
  • People whose immune systems are impaired by medication, such as chemotherapy, or another disease, such as cancer or HIV
  • People who are taking steroid medications for another disease or condition, such as children with asthma
  • People taking drugs that suppress their immune systems

Chickenpox and pregnancy

Chickenpox early in pregnancy can result in a variety of problems in a newborn, including low birth weight and birth defects, such as limb abnormalities. A greater threat to a baby occurs when the mother develops chickenpox in the week before birth. Then it can cause a serious, life-threatening infection in a newborn.

If you’re pregnant and not immune to chickenpox, talk to your doctor about the risks to you and your unborn child.

Tests and diagnosis

Doctors generally diagnose chickenpox based on the telltale rash.

If there’s any doubt about the diagnosis, chickenpox can be confirmed with laboratory tests, including blood tests or a culture of lesion samples.

Treatments and drugs

In otherwise healthy children, chickenpox typically requires no medical treatment. Your doctor may prescribe an antihistamine to relieve itching. But for the most part, the disease is allowed to run its course.

Lifestyle and home remedies

To help ease the symptoms of an uncomplicated case of chickenpox, follow these self-care measures.

Don’t scratch

Scratching can cause scarring, slow healing and increase the risk that the sores will become infected. If your child can’t stop scratching:

  • Put gloves on his or her hands, especially at night
  • Trim his or her fingernails

Relieve the itch and other symptoms

For relief, try:

  • A cool bath with added baking soda, uncooked oatmeal or colloidal oatmeal — a finely ground oatmeal that is made for soaking.
  • Calamine lotion dabbed on the spots.
  • A soft, bland diet if chickenpox sores develop in the mouth.
  • Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Adryl, others) for itching. Check with your doctor to make sure your child can safely take antihistamines.
  • Acetaminophen (Napa, others) or ibuprofen (Inflam, others) for a mild fever.

Prevention

The chickenpox (varicella) vaccine is the best way to prevent chickenpox.

Is it safe and effective?

The chickenpox vaccine isn’t approved for:

  • Pregnant women
  • People with weakened immunity, such as those with HIV or people taking immune-suppressing medications
  • People who are allergic to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin

 

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