Chicken pox
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Though chicken pox is associated with childhood illnesses, chicken pox can strike anyone at any age that has been exposed. In most cases, once a patient has endured chicken pox they are then immune however in rare cases a patient can contract chicken pox more than once in their lifetime. Prior to the introduction of the vaccination in 1995, 4 million Americans contracted the illness annually. While most patients regard chicken pox as a mild disease, the fact is that in some cases chicken pox leads to serious complications even if the affected child is healthy. The vaccine may not completely cease chicken pox from infecting a patient but may significantly ease the symptoms into a much milder form of the illness.


The most recognizable symptom of chicken pox is a red, itchy rash which can spread throughout the entire body. Some patients only end up with the rash on the torso, arms, legs, face, and neck, while others find it on their back, in their eyes, ears, and genitals. The rash appears about two weeks after exposure and appears initially as red spots. The spots then turn into blisters filled with liquid which break open and form crusted sores. Other symptoms are likely to include fever, headaches, abdominal discomfort, loss of appetite, irritability, malaise or general discomfort, and a runny nose with cough for the two days preceding the onset of the rash. Spots can continue to appear for several days and may number in the hundreds.

The rash itself is a highly contagious virus known as varicella-zoster virus which is a member of the herpes family. The virus is spread through direct contact with an infected person, usually transmitted via infected droplets in a sneeze or a cough, or picking up the virus through touching an object which has been recently touched by the infected individual with droplets from sneezing and coughing on the hands.
Chicken pox
Image: Chicken Pox


Risk factors for chicken pox include lacking immunity either through vaccination or previously contracting the disease and being in contact with an infected individual. Chicken pox is highly contagious and can spread rapidly through settings where there are numerous children including day cares and schools.


Complications from chicken pox are fairly rare, although newborns, pregnant women, adults, teenagers, patients with eczema, patients with compromised immune systems, and patients taking steroid medications to control asthma or other illnesses are at high risks for complications. Most commonly, a bacterial infection of the skin may result from the chicken pox, typically from scratching open sores. Patients may also end up with pneumonia or encephalitis, which is swelling of the brain and very serious. Shingles, which is very painful, can affect adults who had chicken pox as a child and then were re-exposed to the illness as an adult. Women who are pregnant and contract the chicken pox may pass on limb abnormalities, low birth weight, and other birth defects. Pregnant women who contract the chicken pox in the week prior to birth may pass on a life threatening infection to their newborn.


In most cases, the chicken pox is simply permitted to run its natural course and most patients require no treatment. However, some patients may need an antihistamine to control the itching and a fever reducer to feel more comfortable. Patients with the chicken pox should never take aspirin to relieve their fever or discomfort as this can lead to a very serious condition known as Reye’s syndrome.

In other cases, especially in adults or other high risk categories, patients may receive an antiviral to help speed healing and recovery time rather than wait for the disease to take its own course of action. Some physicians recommend receiving the vaccine after exposure to the virus to lessen the intensity of the illness. Should complications develop, hospitalization is the most likely next step in treatment.

Comforting cool baths as well as bath soaks designed to relieve itching can help alleviate the symptoms. It is not uncommon for patients to scratch, although they should be sternly advised against scratching as it can make itching worse as well as present a risk for bacterial skin infections. Calamine lotion, a bland diet, and ample rest can help the patient recover faster. Treating the fever with a non-aspirin product can provide a bit more comfort as well.
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