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Chickenpox

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella virus, which is very contagious. Once exposed to the virus it often takes between 14 to 16 days for chickenpox rash or shingles to appear.  What is unique about the varicella virus is that for first time exposures, it will trigger chickenpox, yet re-infection often presents as shingles.

How the Virus Presents

Chickenpox presents with an itchy, blister-like rash. Due to the high level of contagiousness, people who have not had the disease or vaccination are very likely to contract the disease.  Prior to chickenpox  and/or shingle vaccination, almost the entire populace would have experienced a varicella infection prior to adulthood. In modern days, most infections are fairly mild in healthy individuals, yet hospitalization due to infection is still a potential risk of this disease.

Signs and Symptoms

Once the incubation period is over, the active infection with overt symptoms lasts about 5 to 10 days. Diagnosis is generally made due to the unique rash that chickenpox presents with. A couple days prior to the rash actually appearing, a person may complain of one or more of these symptoms.

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite or nausea
  • Headache
  • Fatigue and feeling run down

The 3 Phases of Suffering

Once the chickenpox rash presents, there are 3 distinct phases (steps) that occur:

  • Step 1: Skin being covered with raised/elevated pink or red bumps, which break out over the course of 3 to 5 days.
  • Step 2: Next, there are fluid-filled blisters that arise from the raised bumps, break open and leak fluid about 24 hours after each bump appears.
  • Step 3: Lastly the broken blisters start to crust and scab prior to healing. It is essential not to scratch because this can lead to scarring and infection by bacteria in the open wounds.
  • All 3 phases can occur simultaneously in the midst of the rash phase, as new ones form and old ones resolve.

How Contagious

When a person becomes infected, they can spread the virus to friends, family and classmates for up to 48 hours before the rash appears, and contagion remains until all spots crust over. Personal hygiene is essential, and the more you scratch the more likely you are to spread them to others.  The virus is passed from person to person by direct contact with the rash or by droplets dispersed into the air by coughing or sneezing.

How Serious

Usually chickenpox is fairly mild in healthy individuals, yet severe cases can spread across the entire body and can invade the throat, eyes, mucous membranes and even the genitourinary tract.

Check in with Your Doctor

If you suspect chickenpox has invaded your family home, it is essential to tell your doctor and get checked out.  If the rash moves towards the eyes, nose or throat, immediately notify your doctor.  Likewise, if you feel dizzy, disoriented, experience shortness of breath or other notable symptoms (such as a high fever), seek emergency care.

Complications of Chickenpox

Though usually a mild disease, chickenpox can lead to serious complications including:

  • Pneumonia
  • Inflammation of the brain
  • Skin infections
  • Blood infections
  • Bone and joint infections

Chickenpox vs. Shingles

The varicella virus is a double-edged sword. If you’ve already had chickenpox, you are not in the clear.  In fact, you are at risk of another disease caused by the same virus called shingles. Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, arises in individuals that have had the virus while chickenpox remains in nerve cells. Years to decades later the virus becomes reactivated leading to severe, blistering rash.

Shingles, a condition in which the pain persists long after the blisters disappear,  can lead to its own complication. This complication, called postherpetic neuralgia, can be severe and debilitating. Take vitamin B12 whenever you get shingles to help protect the nerves. Just as with chickenpox, there is also a vaccine for shingles.

Take Home:

Though chickenpox and shingles are both caused by the same virus, generally both have self-limiting side effects and complications do occur. Getting plenty of rest, minimizing exposure and supporting your immune system are all essential. Patients afflicted with the varicella virus must avoid nuts, seeds, chocolate and arginine rich foods during the illness.

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