by Kimberly Allen R.N.
Believe it or not the common childhood illness chicken pox has a season, and this is it. Chicken pox is most prevalent in March thru May. It is thought that this is a time when our bodies immune system is at it’s weakest. The weather is changing and many people have been cooped up thru the long weeks and months of winter and are anxious to get outside.
Chicken pox is caused by a virus know as varicella-zoster. It is a member of the herpesvirus family. Chicken pox is spread in tiny microscopic droplets that are expelled into the air when we sneeze, cough, and breathe. If a person that has been infected with the chicken pox virus is standing near other people and sneezes or coughs anyone in the vicinity can potentially become infected. Chicken pox is most common in young children though it does affect all ages. The virus is usually mild in young children, but can be dangerous for others. Pregnant women, infants, teens, adults and anyone with an already compromised immune system is at risk for complications.
The virus has an incubation period of 10-21 days. This means you’ve already been infected but the sign and symptoms haven’t yet appeared. During the incubation period and especially in the few days just before the symptoms appear it is possible to contaminate and infect others. That’s what makes this virus so contagious. The virus is contagious until all the vesicles are dried up, so the person infected should not return to school or work until all vesicles are completely dried up.
The early symptoms of chicken pox are a general feeling of malaise (feeling sick), fever, headache, and general flu like symptoms. A few days after these symptoms appear small red fluid filled pustules known as the chicken pox rash appears on the skin. These vesicles usually appear in small clusters and are usually found behind the ears, on the scalp and face as well as anywhere else on the body including inside the ears and mouth, as well as the palms and soles of the feet. Some children only have a few spots while others are covered from head to toe. The vesicles can continue to appear for up to 5-7 days.
There is no specific treatment for chicken pox, however, there is now a vaccine available. The vaccine is especially recommended for those that fall in the high risk category. Children that receive the vaccine can sometimes get a mild version of the virus. Other treatments are aimed at comfort and controlling the symptoms. Acetaminophen for the fever, aches, and general discomfort. Do not use aspirin as it can cause other complications. Ibuprofen can be used, however should be avoided if the child has asthma or a history of stomach problems. It is also important to stay hydrated. The vesicles can be very itchy so it is important to keep the childs nails short to prevent the vesicles from being scratched open and getting infected. Luke warm baths, cool compresses, and calamine lotion can be useful to help the itching. If the child has a lot of difficulty with itching you can try benadryl, but remember it can make the child drowsy.
As a rule it is not necessary to see the doctor, however, those who are special risk for complications such as pregnant women, new born babies and people with weakened immune systems should contact their doctor as soon as they are aware they’ve been exposed to the virus or when symptoms appear if they are unaware they’ve been exposed. It is also important to contact your doctor if the vesicles become infected or if there is any pain in the chest or difficulty breathing.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.