Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease that is caused by a herpesvirus called varicella-zoster virus (7). Chickenpox is one of the most easily transmitted of contagious diseases (5). Ninety to ninety-five percent of the people exposed to the virus will develop it within twenty-one days (5). The term chickenpox came from chickpea, which is a member of the bean family and resembles the look of the swollen pox, or from the Old English gican, meaning “to itch” (7).
Before chickenpox was classified as a disease it was confused with other similar diseases such as smallpox, measles, German measles, and scarlet fever. They all had a typical rash, and they were known as acute exanthems or “a disease characterized by an eruption or rash, from the Latin and Greek word exanthema, meaning to break out,’ or, originally, to bloom.'” Many people were misdiagnosed due to the similarities between these diseases, and the fact that they can occur in milder or more sever forms leading to an overlap of the most obvious symptoms. (7)
Chickenpox mostly occurs in children classifying it as a childhood disease although it can occur in adults who are not yet immune to it. This could lead to the belief of chickenpox being one of the oldest diseases. Since the chickenpox infection has two phases, one most common during childhood then a latent form that can become active again later in the persons life, doctors believe that this reactivation would start the cycle all over again. If everyone in the first cycle got the germ then became immune a whole new generation would be born by the time the virus “reawakened” to become infectious in the new generation. This causes the suspicion of chickenpox being one of the oldest diseases. (7)
Chickenpox can infect everyone and anyone throughout the world (7). More than three million Americans mostly children between the ages of two and eight are affected every year (3). The virus is known for being mild, but if an adult or a child with a weak immune system catches it it could become serious (3). “It kills between fifty and a hundred people every year.” (3) Almost 10,000 people are hospitalized each year for complications with the disease (4). The complications range from serious, which can include secondary skin infections, to fatal such as Reye syndrome (4).
This common disease is highly contagious and easily transmitted through the air by sneezing or coughing, or by coming in direct contact with the infected person. Epidemics occur mostly during the winter and early spring although a person can be infected at anytime. It is most easily spread through day cares, schools, and through members of a family. (7)
Chickenpox is part of the herpes family, which can produce two forms of illness. First there is the primary form which occurs when the person first contracts the disease. The virus remains in the body indefinitely, which can lead to the resurfacing of it again. This mostly happens when the body’s immune system is down and the virus can multiply again. This basically means that the herpesvirus is recurrent and can occur many times throughout a person’s lifetime. (7)
The person with chickenpox is most contagious during the first couple of days before he or she breaks out in the rash. The rash is usually preceded by a few days of clod symptoms and a fever. Once infected with the virus a person my not develop symptoms for two to three weeks. The person who is infected will continue to be contagious until the last blister is scabbed over. (3)
The rash of chickenpox starts on the chest or abdomen as fluid-filled blisters on small patches of red skin. After a few days the blisters break, and then dry and scab over. The pox start out in very low numbers, but then rapidly spread over three to four days, and eventually cover the entire body. The pox are extremely itchy but dry up and scab over within ten days. The person suffering from chickenpox may also suffer from headaches. Swollen lymph glands under the neck, fever, tiredness, and irritability. (3)
Chickenpox is known for being a mild disease but some may suffer from complications (7). One in every four hundred people who develop chickenpox made have complications that lead to hospitalization (7). “The most common complication is infection from repeated scratching of one of the 300 or so little red marks.” (1) If chickenpox occurs in a pregnant woman during the first two trimesters, it may cause birth defects (1). During the last trimester, it may cause neonatal chickenpox, which kills thirty percent of infected infants (1).
There are many different treatments for chickenpox (6). If there is a fever or unbearable pain a person can take acetaminophen (6). But, that is only if it is unbearable because sometimes fever is a disease fighting mechanism (6). Wear cotton because it is the least irritating to the skin (6). To help with the itching a person can take a cool bath, a bath in colloidal oatmeal, a bath with baking soda, take an antihistamine, or apply calamine lotion with phenol to the itchy poxes (6). Always stay clean and try not to scratch in order to avoid infection and scarring (6). If an infection does occur treat it with an antibiotic as quickly as possible to avoid complications (6). Never take aspirin for pain and/or fever because it may lead to Reye’s syndrome (6). Reye’s syndrome is (6) “a life-threatening neurological disorder.” (6) It is associated with the use of aspirin by children who have a viral infection (6). A person should consult a physician if they develop (5) “confused behavior, severe cough and complaints about breathing, difficulties in urinating, blood in the urine, and/or chickenpox that have become infected and are red and oozing pus.” (5)
Doctors have recently come out with a vaccine for chickenpox called Varivax (1). The new vaccine may require a booster shot because the immunity possible diminished by adolescence (1). There is controversy on the necessity of the vaccine since chickenpox is almost completely harmless in most cases (4). A child who gets chickenpox has a lifetime immunity, while the vaccine will only provide immunity for ten years (4). If a booster shot is needed then teens and adults who do not get one will be at risk of contracting chickenpox, which is more severe in the older individuals (4). Five percent of U.S. adults have not contracted chickenpox so they are at risk (2). Some side effects of the vaccine include (5) “redness, stiffness, soreness, and swelling at the injection site; tiredness, fussiness, nausea, and a low-grade fever (less than 101 F); and, in a few children, a mild rash at the site of the injection or on other parts of the body.” (5)
Chickenpox can sometimes resurface and cause a disease known as shingles. It occurs after the varicella-zoster virus has been dormant in the body for many years. Shingles produces a rash that covers a small area of the body and is not contagious like chickenpox. However, a person who has not got chickenpox can contract it from anyone who has shingles. Shingles is most common among people over fifty, although anyone can get it. (7)
Chickenpox is a relatively mild disease. It is very common among children, and is part of almost anyone’s childhood. Chickenpox is not considered a deadly disease, which is good, although some may die from it. Chickenpox is nothing to worry about in most cases and should be considered a holiday from school or work.
1. Carpi, John. “A Pox on the Pox.” Scientific American 273: 10 (1995):
2. “Don’t Play Chicken.” Prevention 49: 9 (1997): 137
3. Kemper, M.D., M.P.H. Kathi J. The Holistic Pediatrician. New York, New
York: HarperPerennial, 1996.
4. Kump, Derma. “Childhood without Chicken Pox?” Parents 71: 4 (1996):
5. Markel, Howard, and Frank A. Oski. The Practical Pediatrician. New York,
New York: W.K. Freeman and Company, 1996.
6. Prevention Magazine Health Books, ed. Keeping Kids Healthy. Emmaus,
Pennsylvania: Rodale Press Inc., 1995
7. Silverstein, Alvin, Virginia Silverstein, and Laura Silverstein Nunn.
Chickenpox and Shingles. Springfield, New Jersey: Enslow
Publishers, Inc., 1998.