Q What is chickenpox?

A It is a viral disease caused by first exposure to the varicella zoster virus (VZV). The disease is identified with fever and typical blistered rash all over the body. The virus then remains latent or dormant in the body and can later get reactivated and cause shingles (herpes zoster).

Q What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

A Common symptoms are fever, chills, nausea and vomiting. The most obvious and the most well-known is the blistered and highly itchy rash. Most children have 200-300 lesions, which later form a crust or scab.

Q Is chickenpox contagious?

A Yes, it is. Chickenpox is most contagious a couple of days before the rash appears and until scabs have formed on all the lesions, i.e, till they dry up, which usually occurs in a week’s time after the onset of the rash.

Q How can you contract chickenpox?

A The virus commonly spreads from person-to-person by air-borne droplets. This occurs when an infected person coughs or sneezes and releases secretions in the surrounding air. It can also spread by direct contact with chickenpox or herpes, since the wet lesions contain infectious fluid. In a few cases, it can also occur from an infected pregnant mother to her unborn or newly born child.

Q Who is most susceptible to this virus?

A Chickenpox can occur in both children and adults, males and females. Most people contract chickenpox sometime or the other during childhood or adolescence, but adults who have not been infected before are susceptible to infection and can develop chickenpox in adulthood if and when they come in contact with a case. As chickenpox usually affects young children, those who spend a lot of time with children, like teachers and persons running day-care centres have more chances of contracting the infection. In addition, healthcare providers (doctors, nurses and hospital personnel) are at added risk of developing the infection since they may come in contact with a case during the course of their duty. Chickenpox is usually more severe in older individuals who missed getting it when they were children.

Q Does chickenpox cause complications in children?

A Although for many children chickenpox does not produce major health problems, complications can develop in some cases. Secondary bacterial infection affecting the skin lesions is the most common complication that one encounters, especially when hygiene is poor and when bathing is not regular. Rarely, in a few children, the virus could prove more aggressive and cause infection in lungs leading to pneumonia and may affect the brain leading to swelling and infection (encephalitis). These could prove fatal. Other complications have been described, but these usually have a self-limited course. Rarely, residual scarring may be unsightly, leading to cosmetic concerns later in life.

Q Is chickenpox in adults different from that in children?

A Chickenpox is more severe in adolescents and adults than in children. The fever is higher and continues for a longer time. The rash is usually heavier with deeper and more lesions. The likelihood of complications is greater too. Adults are more likely to suffer from pneumonia. The chances of complications and risk to life tend to be higher when chickenpox is contracted later in life.

Q Some viral infections are dangerous in pregnancy. What about chickenpox?

A The interaction between chickenpox and pregnancy would depend on the timing of contracting the infection during pregnancy. If chickenpox is contracted by the pregnant lady during the first three months of pregnancy, there is a risk of congenital foetal malformations, or chances of abortion. Infection later in pregnancy but not too close to delivery allows maternal antibodies to be passed on to the foetus thus offering protection. Maternal chickenpox within five days prior to delivery or two days after is dangerous as this can result in transmission of the virus without antibodies to the child. Such chickenpox in the newborn can be life threatening as the baby’s immune response is poorly developed at this time.

Q What is the relation between shingles and chickenpox?

A Both these conditions are caused by the same virus i.e, varicella-zoster virus. First exposure to the varicella zoster virus results in chickenpox; that is followed by immunity against the infection, which usually lasts a lifetime. The virus, however, hides in certain nerve roots and remains dormant. The virus may get reactivated many years later, leading to shingles (herpes zoster). Shingles usually afflict adults, especially old people, as the efficiency of the immune system declines with age.