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Chicken Pox

Symptoms and treatment

Chicken pox, caused by the varicella zoster virus, is one the most common communicable childhood diseases. The varicella virus is in the herpes virus family and is also responsible for causing shingles (commonly known as adult chicken pox). It is a viral infection that is rash-like in appearance and is contagious one to two days before the rash appears and continues to be contagious until scabs begin to form.

Chicken Pox Stages

The disease process most commonly lasts for 10 to 21 days. The virus commonly occurs in three stages: the macule, vesicle and granular scab stages.

  • Macules: In this stage, development is very rapid (rash usually occurs within hours). The pimple-like lesions begin to cover the trunk and then spread to the limbs, mouth, scalp, armpits, upper respiratory tract and eye.
  • Vesicles: At this point, the macules become blisters. The blisters can be either depressed or umbilicated (raised lesions with depressed centers).
  • Granular scabs: The vesicles begin to break open and then start to scab over. The lesions form in crops and commonly occur successively. By the third day, all three stages can usually be seen on the body. The lesions are often accompanied by an itching sensation, causing the infected person to scratch.

Scratching should be avoided however, because bacteria from under the nails can infect the open skin wound and cause a secondary bacterial infection, complicating the already present virus.

The symptoms of chicken pox may present in a similar way as a cold might. The infected person may have a cough, mild fever, body aches and photosensitivity (sensitivity to light).

Treatment

The treatments for these symptoms include acetaminophen (Tylenol) for fever and body aches and Benadryl or topical Caladryl for relief from itching. Use caution when using topical Caladryl on young children, especially when using in combination with Benadryl, because of the possibility of overdose through systemic absorption. The antiviral agent Acyclovir may also be prescribed by some health care providers.

Discomfort from itching can be relieved by taking lukewarm baths with baking soda in the water. It is also important to get plenty of rest and increase fluid intake to aid in recuperation and rehydration.

Vaccination against varicella is not required like some vaccines, however, it is recommended and usually given between the ages of 12 to 18 months. The vaccine is generally safe and has been known to prevent chicken pox in 90 percent of those who receive it.

If a woman of childbearing years has never had chicken pox or been exposed to the virus, then it is recommended that she also receive the vaccine. She should then refrain from becoming pregnant within a month of getting it. If she is already pregnant, then she should not get the live vaccine but instead talk to her health care provider about getting the varicella zoster immunoglobulin (VZIG) within four days of any possible exposure to chicken pox. Her health care provider may also prescribe Acyclovir if she has already acquired the virus.

One of the best resources for information regarding the prevention and control of the chicken pox virus is the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This information can be accessed through the website www.cdc.gov.

By Katie Davis

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