Chickenpox Common childhood illness

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Most of us have either been infected or affected by chickenpox in one way or the other. Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease caused by the varicella zoster virus, which brings about blister-like rashes, itching, tiredness and fever. Chickenpox is often mild but can be dangerous especially in newborn babies, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

In days gone by, chickenpox was so common in children that it was considered as a childhood rite of passage since one was bound to get it. Being an airborne disease, the varicella zoster virus is spread easily through sneezes and coughs of an infected person. And no, the disease has no connection whatsoever with chickens.

Symptoms of chickenpox

Anyone who hasn’t had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine can get the disease. The condition usually lasts about five to seven days. Its classic symptom is a rash that turns into itchy, fluid-filled blisters that eventually turns into scabs. The rash may first show up on the face, chest and back before spreading to the rest of the body including inside the mouth, eyelids, or genital area. It usually takes about a week for all the blisters to become scabs. Other typical symptoms that may be experienced one to two days before the rash include fever, tiredness, loss of appetite and headache.

Managing the virus

The best way to prevent chickenpox is to get the chickenpox vaccine. Children under the age of 13 should get two doses of the vaccine. People 13 years or older who have never had chickenpox should also get two doses of the vaccine at least 28 days apart.  Pregnant women should wait until they have given birth to get the vaccine while those planning to have a baby should wait at least one month after getting the chickenpox vaccine before getting pregnant.

Most people who get the vaccine will not get chickenpox and if they do, it is usually mild with fewer red spots or blisters and mild or no fever. The disease can be managed at home although there is no specific medicine you can take to cure it. Here are some methods you can use to manage it.

Painkillers: If you or your children have a high temperature (fever) and feel uncomfortable, over-the-counter painkillers can help. The best painkiller to try is paracetamol, as it’s safe for most people including pregnant women and children over two months of age. Special liquid versions are available for young children and babies.

Food and drink: It’s important to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Water is better than sugary, fizzy or acidic drinks particularly if you or your child has chickenpox spots in the mouth.

Antiviral medications: These are recommended for people with chickenpox who are likely to develop serious diseases including:

Chronic skin or lung disease

Pregnant women

People receiving steroid therapy

Transmission of chickenpox

The virus spreads easily from people with chickenpox to others who have never had the disease or been vaccinated. The virus spreads mainly by touching or breathing in the virus particles that come from chickenpox blisters, and possibly through tiny droplets from infected people that get into the air after they breathe or talk. For instance, a person infected with chickenpox can spread the disease from one to two days before they experience chickenpox symptoms until all their chickenpox blisters have formed scabs (usually five to seven days).

It takes about two weeks (from 10 to 21 days) after exposure to the virus for someone to develop chickenpox. If a person vaccinated for chickenpox gets the disease, they can still spread it to others. For most people, getting chickenpox once provides immunity for life. However, for a few people, they can get chickenpox more than once.

Expert Advice…

Chickenpox can be very itchy, but it’s important not to scratch the spots as it can increase the chances of the skin becoming infected with bacteria. To avoid infection and get some relief from the itch:

Keep nails short and clean

Tap or pat the skin instead of scratching it

Wear cotton gloves at night (or socks over hands)

Bathe in cool or lukewarm water

Ask your pharmacist for an over-the-counter remedy for itchiness

Published in February 2017

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