Chickenpox In Children: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

Chickenpox is a common childhood disease, characterised by fever and rashes. What causes the infection and how can it be treated? Read on to know all about it.

By Dr Srinivas Prasad B R

Chickenpox In Children: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

Chickenpox is one of the most common infections amongst children. It is caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV). Chickenpox causes red, itchy blisters all over the body, which causes much discomfort.

Signs and symptoms:

The first symptoms of chickenpox include fever, sore throat, and loss of appetite. The rash associated with the infection usually does not develop until a day after these symptoms begin. The rash starts out as clusters of small, usually itchy, red blisters. Over time, these blisters burst, dry up, crust, and form scabs. The rash tends to form on the face, chest and back, or limbs, and new clusters of blisters continue to appear for a few days.

How long does the rash last?

New blisters can develop throughout the body for about four days following the first sign of the rash. By day six, the blisters have completely scabbed over in most healthy people. The scabs then take a week or two to fall off and may leave marks on the skin that take time to fade.

How does the infection spread?

If you have not had chickenpox and have not been fully vaccinated against the varicella zoster virus, you can become infected by breathing in airborne traces of the virus or coming in contact with a person who has chickenpox. It is highly contagious and an infected person can spread the infection even before developing a rash or showing any signs of being sick.

After being exposed to the varicella virus, you will begin to show symptoms after about two weeks.  This period following exposure and preceding the onset of symptoms is called the incubation period. In fact, you remain contagious until the last of the bumps have completely scabbed over. During this time, infected persons should avoid contact with others. 

Risk groups:

Although chickenpox is generally a mild illness in children, susceptible adults and other high-risk persons may become seriously ill after exposure. These risk groups include:

  • Pregnant women
  • Newborn babies
  • People whose immune systems may be compromised, including those with HIV, or who have received an organ or bone marrow (stem cell) transplant

Can you catch chickenpox twice?

Most people who have had chickenpox do not develop chickenpox a second time, except in some rare cases.

Diagnosis:

Healthcare providers can usually diagnose chickenpox just by looking at the rash. In some cases, additional tests may be used.

If you believe you or your child has the chickenpox, call your healthcare provider to find out when you should come in to be seen. In cases of possible chickenpox infection, healthcare providers must take steps to protect other patients. 

Prevention:

There is a vaccine for chickenpox called the varicella vaccine, which can prevent the disease. People who do not develop full protection from the vaccine may develop chickenpox after exposure. However, it is recommended for all children between the ages of 12 to 15 months. A second dose is recommended at 4 to 6 years of age. 

Treatment:

There are two types of treatments for chickenpox:

  • Those that ease the symptoms
  • Treatment that targets the infection

Often, chickenpox goes away after it has run its course. While one can benefit from treatment to ease symptoms, not all people who get infected need treatment for the virus itself. While one can control fever using medication, antihistamine medications can be used for itching. Acyclovir, a medicine, is helpful in reducing the itch.

Complications:

Most people who develop chickenpox fight off the infection. Still, complications can arise, especially in adults and people with compromised immune systems. People who develop serious complications of chickenpox are usually hospitalized and treated with acyclovir.

Potential complications of chickenpox include:

  1. Skin infections
  2. Pneumonia
  3. Encephalitis, inflammation of the brain

Chickenpox during pregnancy:

Chickenpox during pregnancy can lead to complications such as pneumonia in the mother, or in rare cases, birth defects. Chickenpox is also very dangerous for newborn babies. Pregnant women should contact their healthcare provider right away, if they develop any signs of chickenpox.

Pregnant women who are exposed to the virus cannot receive the varicella vaccine, but they may need to take varicella immune globulin, an injection that can help protect against infection. Pregnant women who get chickenpox need to be closely monitored for signs of infection and/or complications.

The author is a Consultant Paediatrician and Neonatologist. 

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