Even with vaccine, parents should still be aware of symptoms of chickenpox

Seven things you should know about chickenpox

Unlike 25 years ago, parents of young children don’t have to worry quite as much about their child getting chickenpox. Thanks to a vaccine, hopefully your kids can be spared the unbearable itching, oatmeal baths and scars.

Chickenpox, also known as the varicella-zoster virus, is a highly contagious disease that causes a blister-like rash, itching and fever. 

Dr. Kenneth Eugene
Kenneth Eugene, M.D., Family Medicine Physician at St. Joseph’s/Candler Primary Care located in Rincon

Chickenpox used to be very common in the United States. However, since the varicella vaccine was introduced in the United States in 1995, the number of chickenpox outbreaks has gone down significantly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the early 1990s, an average of 4 million people got the varicella virus, almost 13,000 were hospitalized and 100 to 150 people died each year. Thanks to the vaccine, the CDC reports more than 3.5 million cases of chickenpox, 9,000 hospitalizations and 100 deaths are prevented by the varicella vaccine.

“Thanks to vaccinations very few cases of chickenpox are seen today, but outbreaks still occur,” says Kenneth Eugene, M.D., Family Medicine Physician at St. Joseph’s/Candler Primary Care located in Rincon.

Because outbreaks can occur and chickenpox are highly contagious, it is important for parents to understand the virus and be aware of the warning signs. Chickenpox can be very serious, especially in babies, adults and people with weakened immune systems.

Here are seven things you should know about chickenpox:

1. When should I be concerned my child will get chickenpox?
Chickenpox tends to affect children between the ages of one to nine years old, Dr. Eugene says. Your child is most likely to get the virus in late winter and spring months but watch for symptoms any time of the year.

2. What are the symptoms of chickenpox?
The disease presents as a rash that turns into itchy, red blisters that eventually turn into scabs. The rash typically appears on the face, chest, back and abdomen, Dr. Eugene says, and then may spread to the rest of the body. It usually takes about one week for the blisters to become scabs. Other symptoms of chickenpox include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headache

Symptoms may last five to seven days. If your child is school-aged, expect to miss school during the entire duration of the illness since it is highly contagious.

3. What complications are associated with the virus?
Complications from chickenpox can occur; however, they are not common in healthy people who get the disease. Infants and adolescents may be at some risk of serious complications including:

  • Bacterial infections of the skin and soft tissues in children, include streptococcal infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Infection or inflammation of the brain
  • Bleeding problems
  • Blood stream infections
  • Dehydration

4. How do I treat chickenpox?
Most cases of chickenpox require supportive treatment that can be done at home or with over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen and antihistamines, says Dr. Eugene. You want to avoid any aspirin or aspirin-containing products as they may cause damage to the liver and brain. Calamine lotion and colloidal oatmeal baths also may help relieve some of the itching.

5. When should my child go to a doctor?
If your child is less than a year old or older than 12, you are at risk of serious complications and should see a doctor. These patients may need an anti-viral medication, Dr. Eugene says, which would require a doctor’s prescription.

You should call your physician if any of the following symptoms develop in anyone with chickenpox:

  • Fever lasts longer than four days
  • Fever rises above 102
  • Any area of the rash becomes very red, warm or tender or begins leaking pus
  • Difficulty waking up or confused demeanor
  • Difficulty walking
  • Stiff neck
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe cough
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Rash with bleeding or bruising

6. Can I prevent my child from getting chickenpox?
The best way to prevent your child from getting chickenpox is the varicella vaccine. The vaccine has proven to be safe and effective at preventing the disease. According to the CDC, most people who get the vaccine will not get chickenpox. If a vaccinated person does get chickenpox, it is usually mild with fewer red blisters and mild or no fever.

The chickenpox vaccine can be given to anyone older than 12 months and is given in two doses, Dr. Eugene says. If you child has not received the vaccine, talk to your pediatrician or family physician.

7. Can I get chickenpox as an adult?
If you’ve had the disease before, it’s extremely rare you will get it again because you’ve built immunity against it. However, if you never had the vaccine or never had chickenpox, it is possible to catch chickenpox from your child.

People over 13 and those with poor immune response, including transplant, HIV/AIDs and cancer patients, often have worse outbreaks, including pulmonary and neurological complications, Dr. Eugene says. Pregnant women also should avoid exposure to chickenpox. Call your healthcare provider if you meet any of those criteria and are exposed to chickenpox.

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