Chickenpox, once a common infection in children, is now vaccine-preventable. Chickenpox is usually a mild illness in children. Infection in teenagers, newborn babies, adults and people with weakened immune systems can be more serious or even life-threatening.
Children with chicken pox can get pneumonia or other serious complications like bacterial skin infections and encephalitis (brain inflammation), though they are uncommon.
About 1 in every 3,000 adults with chickenpox will die from the infection.
The virus spreads easily through the air when an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes. People can also catch chickenpox if they touch the fluid of a chickenpox blister, then touch their eyes or nose. It is difficult to stop the spread, because it is most contagious a day or two before the rash appears. The only way to stop the spread of the virus is to stay away from an infected person.
- Chickenpox begins with a fever, runny nose, cough and muscle aches.
- A day or two later, a rash appears on the body. The rash starts with itchy, red spots that soon turn into blisters filled with fluid.
- After a few days a hard cover or crust forms over each blister. Blisters that get infected will scar.
- Chickenpox usually lasts about 10 days.
In most cases, chickenpox is a mild illness. If you have chickenpox, you should rest but you do not need to stay in bed.
Anyone infected with chickenpox should not go to work or school for five days after the beginning of a rash or until blisters have crusted over.
Some steps you can take are to:
- Drink lots of liquids such as water, juice and soup, especially if there is a fever. If your baby is breastfeeding, feed your baby more often.
- Keep fingernails short and clean, and for kids, cover hands with gloves or socks at night to prevent scratching.
- Keep the skin cool to relieve itching. Dress lightly and avoid hot baths and showers. Ask your pharmacist or health care provider about lotions that can reduce the itching.
- Prevent the spread of infection by using a household cleaner to wash any clothing or other items soiled with fluid from chickenpox blisters. Keep the infected person away from other family members who have not had chickenpox.
All adult women who have never had chickenpox should ask their doctor about the chickenpox vaccine. There are risks of complications to mother and baby during and after pregnancy. If chickenpox happens early in pregnancy, there is a small chance the baby will develop serious birth defects.
A person who is pregnant or immunocompromised who is not immune to chickenpox should call their doctor right away if they think they have been exposed to the virus, as medication can be given to prevent or reduce complications of the illness.
Anyone who has not had chickenpox on or after 12 months of age is eligible to receive two doses of vaccine. Children are routinely offered vaccine at 12 months, four years of age, in grade six and grade nine. For children who get exposed and don’t yet have immunity, getting the shot three to five days after the first contact with chickenpox may minimize or prevent illness.
You can get vaccinated through your doctor or at a VCH Community Health Care Centre.
VCH Sneezes & Diseases booklet