Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center - Health Library

Conditions InDepth: Chickenpox

Chickenpox

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Chickenpox is a highly contagious viral infection. It produces a widespread itchy rash with blisters and crusting. The varicella zoster virus (VZV) causes chickenpox. The virus can spread from person to person via:

  • Airborne droplets of moisture containing the virus
  • Direct contact with fluid from a chickenpox rash

The virus is most contagious for 1-2 days before the rash erupts and during the first day or so after the rash has broken out. It remains contagious until all of the blisters have crusted.

Because of an extensive vaccination program, the incidence of chickenpox has declined greatly in the United States. The majority of cases occur in infants, children, and adolescents under age 12. The incidence among adults 20 years or older is very low. When contracted during childhood, chickenpox is usually not serious. Serious complications are more common when contracted by adolescents, adults, newborns, or people with a suppressed immune system. These complications can include:

  • Pneumonia—usually in adults or older children
  • Central nervous system complications, including:
  • Bacterial infections from Group A streptococci and Staphylococcus aureus leading to infections in the skin, bones, or joints, toxic shock syndrome, bacteremia, arteritis, gangrene, and pericarditis.
  • Inflammation
  • Bleeding problems due to low platelet counts
  • Eye or optic nerve damage
  • If a susceptible mother catches chickenpox while pregnant, damage to the baby may occasionally result. Some associated birth defects include: poor growth of arms or legs, skin scarring, small head, and perhaps intellectual disability or other abnormalities of the nervous system.
  • Shingles is a complication of chickenpox that can occur years later.
REFERENCES:

Chickenpox. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116084/Chickenpox. Updated June 19, 2017. Accessed March 14, 2018.

Chickenpox. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/chickenpox.html. Updated January 2017. Accessed March 14, 2018.

Chickenpox (varicella). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/chickenpox. Updated June 28, 2016. Accessed March 14, 2018.

Last reviewed March 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review BoardJames P. Cornell, MD  Last Updated: 3/15/2015