Chickenpox is an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It causes an itchy rash with small, fluid-filled blisters. Chickenpox is highly contagious to people who haven't had the disease or been vaccinated against it. Today, a vaccine is available that protects children against chickenpox. Routine vaccination is recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The chickenpox vaccine is a safe, effective way to prevent chickenpox and its possible complications.
The itchy blister rash caused by chickenpox infection appears 10 to 21 days after exposure to the virus and usually lasts about five to 10 days. Other signs and symptoms, which may appear one to two days before the rash, include:
Once the chickenpox rash appears, it goes through three phases:
New bumps continue to appear for several days, so you may have all three stages of the rash — bumps, blisters and scabbed lesions — at the same time. You can spread the virus to other people for up to 48 hours before the rash appears, and the virus remains contagious until all broken blisters have crusted over.
The disease is generally mild in healthy children. In severe cases, the rash can cover the entire body, and lesions may form in the throat, eyes, and mucous membranes of the urethra, anus and vagina.
If you think you or your child might have chickenpox, consult your doctor. He or she usually can diagnose chickenpox by examining the rash and considering other symptoms. Your doctor can also prescribe medications to lessen the severity of chickenpox and treat complications, if necessary. To avoid infecting others in the waiting room, call ahead for an appointment and mention that you think you or your child may have chickenpox.
Also, let your doctor know if:
Chickenpox infection is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It can spread through direct contact with the rash. It can also spread when a person with the chickenpox coughs or sneezes and you inhale the air droplets.
Your risk of becoming infected with the varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox is higher if you haven't already had chickenpox or if you haven't had the chickenpox vaccine. It's especially important for people who work in child care or school settings to be vaccinated.
Most people who have had chickenpox or have been vaccinated against chickenpox are immune to chickenpox. A few people can get chickenpox more than once, but this is rare. If you've been vaccinated and still get chickenpox, symptoms are often milder, with fewer blisters and mild or no fever.
Chickenpox is normally a mild disease. But it can be serious and can lead to complications including:
People who are at higher risk of chickenpox complications include:
Low birth weight and limb abnormalities are more common among babies born to women who are infected with chickenpox early in their pregnancy. When a mother is infected with chickenpox in the week before birth or within a couple of days after giving birth, her baby has a higher risk of developing a serious, life-threatening infection.
If you're pregnant and not immune to chickenpox, talk to your doctor about the risks to you and your unborn child.
If you've had chickenpox, you're at risk of a complication called shingles. The varicella-zoster virus remains in your nerve cells after the skin infection has healed. Many years later, the virus can reactivate and resurface as shingles — a painful cluster of short-lived blisters. The virus is more likely to reappear in older adults and people who have weakened immune systems.
The pain of shingles can last long after the blisters disappear. This is called postherpetic neuralgia and can be severe.
The shingles vaccine (Shingrix) is recommended for adults who have had chickenpox. Shingrix is approved and recommended for people age 50 and older, including those who've previously received another shingles vaccine (Zostavax). Zostavax, which isn't recommended until age 60, is no longer sold in the United States.
The chickenpox (varicella) vaccine is the best way to prevent chickenpox. Experts from the CDC estimate that the vaccine provides complete protection from the virus for nearly 98% of people who receive both of the recommended doses. When the vaccine doesn't provide complete protection, it significantly lessens the severity of chickenpox.
The chickenpox vaccine (Varivax) is recommended for:
Young children. In the United States, children receive two doses of the varicella vaccine — the first between ages 12 and 15 months and the second between ages 4 and 6 years — as part of the routine childhood vaccination schedule.
The vaccine can be combined with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, but for some children between the ages of 12 and 23 months, the combination may increase the risk of fever and seizure from the vaccine. Discuss the pros and cons of combining the vaccines with your child's doctor.
Unvaccinated adults who've never had chickenpox and are at high risk of exposure. This includes health care workers, teachers, child care employees, international travelers, military personnel, adults who live with young children and all women of childbearing age.
Adults who've never had chickenpox or been vaccinated usually receive two doses of the vaccine, four to eight weeks apart. If you don't remember whether you've had chickenpox or the vaccine, a blood test can determine your immunity.
The chickenpox vaccine isn't approved for:
Talk to your doctor if you're unsure about your need for the vaccine. If you're planning on becoming pregnant, consult with your doctor to make sure you're up to date on your vaccinations before conceiving a child.
Parents typically wonder whether vaccines are safe. Since the chickenpox vaccine became available, studies have consistently found it to be safe and effective. Side effects are generally mild and include redness, soreness, swelling and, rarely, small bumps at the site of the shot.
Doctors generally diagnose chickenpox based on the rash.
If there's any doubt about the diagnosis, chickenpox can be confirmed with lab tests, including blood tests or a culture of lesion samples.
In otherwise healthy children, chickenpox typically needs 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.
For people who are at high risk of complications from chickenpox, doctors sometimes prescribe medications to shorten the length of the infection and to help reduce the risk of complications.
If you or your child are at high risk of complications, your doctor may suggest an antiviral drug such as acyclovir (Zovirax, Sitavig). This medication might lessen the severity of chickenpox when given within 24 hours after the rash first appears. Other antiviral drugs, such as valacyclovir (Valtrex) and famciclovir, also may lessen the severity of the disease, but might not be approved or appropriate for everyone.
In some instances, your doctor may recommend getting the chickenpox vaccine within three to five days after you've been exposed to the virus. This can prevent the disease or lessen its severity.
If complications develop, your doctor will determine the appropriate treatment. He or she may prescribe antibiotics for skin infections and pneumonia. Brain inflammation (encephalitis) is usually treated with antiviral drugs. You may need to be hospitalized.
To help ease the symptoms of an uncomplicated case of chickenpox, follow these self-care measures.
Scratching can cause scarring, slow healing and increase the risk that the sores will become infected. If your child can't stop scratching:
The chickenpox rash can be very itchy, and broken vesicles sometimes sting. These discomforts, along with fever, headache and fatigue, can make anyone miserable. For relief, try:
If fever lasts longer than four days and is higher than 102, call your doctor. And don't give aspirin to children and teenagers who have chickenpox because it can lead to a serious condition called Reye's syndrome.
Talk with your doctor before giving any type of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) — such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) — to someone who has chickenpox. Some studies suggest this type of medication may lead to skin infections or tissue damage.
Call your family doctor if you or your child has signs and symptoms common to chickenpox. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
Questions to ask your doctor about chickenpox include:
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions.
Your doctor may ask:
Rest as much as possible, and avoid contact with others. Chickenpox is highly contagious until skin lesions have fully crusted.
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