Varicella (Chickenpox) is a very contagious illness caused by the varicella-zoster virus. Historically, Chickenpox has been a childhood disease that most people would catch before age 14, but you can get Chickenpox at any age. If you’ve had Chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in the roots of your nerve cells, and can reappear as Shingles, a painful skin rash.
What are the symptoms of Chickenpox?
It usually takes two to three weeks for a person to get sick after they are exposed to the varicella-zoster virus. The first symptoms include fever, tiredness, headache, and muscle and joint pain. One or two days later, an itchy, bumpy, red rash appears. The rash is usually first seen on the scalp, face, and chest. It can spread across the body and potentially affect mucous membranes.
After a day or two, the rash turns to blisters, which become cloudy and then break and form scabs. For the next five days, new waves of blisters form while old blisters begin to heal. By the sixth day most blisters will have formed scabs, and they will have disappeared within two weeks. The Chickenpox rash is usually harmless and goes away on its own.
Complications from Chickenpox include:
- Encephalitis that can lead to convulsions, brain damage, or deafness.
- Birth defects that are serious and potentially fatal if a woman is infected by Varicella while pregnant.
- Bacterial infections of the skin caused by scratching.
How can I get Chickenpox (Varicella)?
People with Chickenpox can spread the virus to others from up to five days before and five days after the rash appears. You can become infected when someone who is infectious coughs or sneezes into the air and you breathe in the droplets, or if you have direct contact with the blisters or saliva of a person who is infected with Chickenpox or Shingles. A pregnant woman with Chickenpox can pass it to her unborn baby.
Chickenpox usually occurs in late winter and early spring. People with Chickenpox are most contagious from the day before the rash appears until all the blisters have crusted and scabs have formed. To reduce the spread of Chickenpox, people who are infectious should remain at home until all blisters have formed scabs.
Where can I get Chickenpox (Varicella)?
You can get Chickenpox anywhere, particularly in densely populated urban settings.
What vaccines are available for Chickenpox (Varicella)?
In Canada, the Chickenpox vaccine is part of the recommended childhood immunization schedule. The vaccine contains a weakened form of the varicella-zoster virus that causes the immune system to make antibodies to defend against future infection by the virus. It is 85 to 95 percent effective.
Side effects of the vaccine are usually very mild and can occur up to two weeks after vaccination. There may be some pain or discomfort at the injection site, and some people may have a slight fever. Sometimes people with weakened immune systems may develop a rash around the injection site, from which the virus can spread to others. Overall, these side effects are much milder than complications from a serious case of Varicella infection.
The Varicella vaccine is not recommended for people who:
- Are pregnant or trying to get pregnant.
- Have severe allergies to neomycin or gelatin.
- Have active untreated Tuberculosis, blood disorders, or a suppressed immune system.
- Are less than one year old.
How many shots will I need?
Anyone over 12 months of age who has never had Chickenpox should receive two doses of the Chickenpox vaccine. For people 13 years of age and over, the two doses are given at least six weeks apart. Children normally receive their first dose at 12 months of age and their second at 4 to 6 years of age.
Will I need a booster?
You will not need a booster after you have received two Chickenpox shots.
How can I prevent Chickenpox (Varicella)?
Since the introduction of the Chickenpox vaccine, many children never get Chickenpox.
Children who have had the Chickenpox vaccine can still get Chickenpox. However, they usually have a much milder case with a smaller number of blisters.
If you’ve never had Chickenpox, try to stay away from anyone who’s infected until all the blisters have dried and scabs have formed. People at high risk who’ve been exposed to the Chickenpox virus should see their doctor immediately as they may need immune globulin (antibodies against Varicella zoster). People most prone to Varicella include those with low resistance to diseases, such as newborns, people who have AIDS, or people taking corticosteroids, transplant medications, or cancer medications.
What is the treatment for Chickenpox (Varicella)?
In most cases, Chickenpox is a mild illness. If you have Chickenpox, you should rest but you do not need to stay in bed.
Children usually have a much milder infection and recover faster than adults. Babies, adults, and those with weakened immune systems tend to have more severe and longer-lasting symptoms. They are at higher risk of developing complications, including inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) and pneumonia.
- Drink lots of liquids such as water, juice and soup, especially if there is a fever.
- Keep your fingernails short and clean, as bacteria found under fingernails can infect open skin lesions.
- Keep the skin cool to relieve itching. Apply cool-water compresses, dress lightly, have lukewarm baths and showers.
- Keep the infected person away from other people who have not had Chickenpox.
- Use hot water and strong detergent to wash clothing and other items that have been soiled with fluid from Chickenpox blisters.
- Ask your pharmacist or health care provider about creams or ointments that can reduce the itching.
Find out more information on Chickenpox from our Vancouver Travel Clinic or any of our other 18 Travel Clinic locations.