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A child with chickenpox.

6 things you need to know about chickenpox

Chickenpox is a common and highly contagious illness that often affects young children. In adults who have never had chickenpox, an outbreak can be much more serious.

“Chickenpox is most common in ages 5 to 9, but in the United States it is now most commonly seen between the ages of 1 and 4 because of daycare,” says Jyotir Jani, M.D., a family medicine physician at Piedmont. “However, chickenpox can occur at any age and symptoms are usually worse in adults as compared to children.”

Here’s what you need to know about the illness.

1. Chickenpox symptoms

Chickenpox usually lasts five to seven days. The most common symptom is fluid-filled, itchy blisters that appear all over the body. Once the blisters have scabbed over, chickenpox is no longer contagious.

Other symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite

2. Complications from chickenpox

“Chickenpox is normally a mild disease, but its complications can be serious and lead to death,” says Dr. Jani.

Serious complications include:

  • Bacterial infection of the blisters
  • Bleeding issues
  • Blood infection (sepsis)
  • Brain inflammation or infection (encephalitis)
  • Dehydration
  • Pneumonia
  • Reye’s syndrome in people who take aspirin during the outbreak
  • Toxic shock syndrome

In very rare cases, chickenpox can lead to death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chickenpox deaths occur even in healthy adults and children. In the healthy adults who died from chickenpox, most caught the disease from their unvaccinated children.

If you have never had an outbreak, it is important to contact your primary care doctor if you have been exposed to chickenpox and:

  • Are pregnant
  • Have not been vaccinated
  • Have a weakened immune system, such as from chemotherapy, HIV/AIDS or organ transplantation

3. Signs you should call your doctor

“If you suspect that you or your child has chickenpox, consult your doctor,” advises Dr. Jani. “He or she can usually diagnose chickenpox by examining the rash and noting the presence of accompanying symptoms. Your doctor can also prescribe medications to lessen the severity of chickenpox and treat complications, if necessary. Be sure to call ahead for an appointment and mention you think you or your child has chickenpox to avoid waiting and possibly infecting others in a waiting room.”

Call your doctor if you or a loved one experiences:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty waking up
  • Fever above 102 degrees or that lasts more than four days
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Redness, bleeding, bruising, tenderness, warmth and/or pus anywhere on the body
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Severe cough
  • Stiff neck
  • Trouble walking
  • Trouble breathing

4. The chickenpox vaccine

“The chickenpox vaccine can help prevent these complications and reduce your risk of developing shingles, which is a re-emergence of the chickenpox virus in those of us who were infected as children,” he explains. “The vaccine is recommended at age 12 to 18 months and then as a booster at age 11 to 12.  It can also be given to adults who have never had chickenpox.”

While it is 95 percent effective in preventing severe outbreaks, 10 to 30 percent of vaccinated children will have mild chickenpox symptoms after exposure to someone with the virus.

5. Chickenpox treatment

Chickenpox usually goes away on its own, though the following methods can lessen the symptoms:

  • Antiviral medications (works best if given within 24 hours of rash outbreak)
  • Calamine lotion
  • Colloidal oatmeal baths
  • Non-aspirin fever reducers, like acetaminophen

“In high-risk groups (such as pregnant women or people with compromised immune systems), antiviral therapy such as Acyclovir, Valacyclovir, and Famciclovir can be used,” says Dr. Jani.

6. Chickenpox and shingles

If you’ve ever had chickenpox, you are at risk for shingles. If you’ve never had chickenpox and are exposed to someone with shingles, you are at risk for developing chickenpox, but not shingles.

Getting the chickenpox vaccine can reduce your risk for shingles, so talk to your doctor to see if it’s right for you.

Dr. Jani practices at Piedmont Physicians Jefferson Family Practice, located at 528 Panther Drive, Jefferson, GA 30549. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Jani or one of our other primary care providers. Save time, book online.

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