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Chicken Pox

UPMC Content 2

Chicken pox is a very contagious disease. The scientific name for chicken pox is varicella (vair-ih-SELL-a). The early symptoms of chicken pox include:

  • Fever (usually 101 to 103F)
  • Runny nose and cough
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tired or sick feeling

Within 24 to 48 hours after the symptoms begin, a rash that looks like red spots appears on the chest, back, or face. Chicken pox can then spread all over the body, including inside the mouth, eyes, and ears. The spots change into blisters, which can be itchy. The blisters break open and crust over within a few days. Chicken pox usually lasts from 5 to 7 days in children. It usually is more severe and lasts longer in adults.

How is chicken pox spread?

Chicken pox can be spread:

  • Through the air when someone with chicken pox sneezes or coughs
  • Through contact with drainage from chicken pox blisters
  • Through contact with respiratory secretions or mucus membranes of people who have chicken pox

Chicken pox can spread to other people even before the rash appears.

Have you been exposed to chicken pox?

You are “exposed” to chicken pox when you are in close contact with someone who has chicken pox blisters. If you had chicken pox in the past, you are immune. This means you should not get chicken pox again. If you can answer “no” or “not sure” to both of the following questions, you should report any chicken pox exposure to your doctor:

  • Did you have chicken pox when you were young? If you are not sure, ask your parents or family members. They may remember if you had chicken pox as a child.
  • Did you get a shot to prevent chicken pox?

If you are exposed to chicken pox and you have not had chicken pox or the chicken pox shot, your doctor can do a blood test to see if you are immune. As long as you are not pregnant and you have never had chicken pox before, you can get a chicken pox shot. The shot helps to protect you against chicken pox in the future.

Chicken pox and immune disorders

Chicken pox can be more serious for people who have certain conditions that affect their immune systems. Transplant recipients are at a greater risk. So are people who have cancer, HIV, or rheumatologic problems, or who are taking certain medicines.

If you have a condition that affects your immune system, tell your doctor right away if you are exposed to chicken pox. Your doctor may give you VZIG (varicella zoster immune globulin) to try to prevent chicken pox. If you break out with chicken pox, tell your doctor so that you can get antiviral therapy.

Chicken pox and pregnancy

Chicken pox during pregnancy rarely causes birth defects. However, it can make the pregnant mother more at risk for developing other problems like pneumonia.

If you are pregnant and you have never had chicken pox before, call your doctor as soon as possible after you have been exposed to chicken pox. Your doctor may order a blood test to see if you are immune. If you are not immune to chicken pox, you may be offered VZIG. It may provide some protection against chicken pox in pregnancy.


If you have been exposed to chicken pox and you are not immune, you should follow these precautions:

  • If you have a doctor’s appointment or medical test scheduled, call ahead. Let them know before you go in that you have been exposed to chicken pox and when you were exposed. When you arrive, go directly to the appointment area. If your appointment is in a hospital, do not go to the gift shop, cafeteria, or other waiting areas.
  • Stay away from friends and family who have not had chicken pox while you are contagious.
  • Do not go out in public places while you are contagious.
  • Always cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and sneezing, and then wash your hands.

Do you have chicken pox blisters?

If you think you have chicken pox blisters, call your doctor’s office. Explain that you may have chicken pox blisters before you go in for an appointment.

When is chicken pox contagious?

People who get chicken pox can be contagious starting a few days before the rash appears. This usually means that you may be contagious from the 10th to the 21st day after you were exposed to chicken pox. A good way to determine whether or not you are contagious is to fill in the information below. In Step 1, write the date that you were exposed to chicken pox. In Step 2, add 10 days to your exposure date and write this number on the first blank line. Next, add 21 days to your exposure date and write this number on the second blank line.

  1. I was exposed on ______ (date).
  2. I will be potentially contagious from ______ to _______ (date).

For example, if you were exposed on Aug. 3, you could be contagious from Aug. 13 through Aug. 24.

Once the rash is obvious, you will remain contagious until the blisters crust over.

How is chicken pox treated?

In general, chicken pox does not need specific treatment. However, there are medicines that your doctor may prescribe. Home treatment can help to relieve itching. Some ways to control itching include:

  • Oatmeal baths in cool or lukewarm water
  • Baking soda baths in cool or lukewarm water
  • Calamine lotion
  • Benadryl lotion or capsules

Fever and pain can also be treated. You can take medicine that has acetaminophen (uh- see-tuh-MIH-nuh-fen) such as Tylenol or ibuprofen (eye-byu-PRO-fen) such as Motrin. Children and teens should never take aspirin while they are ill or have a fever. Taking aspirin puts young people at risk for Reye’s (sounds like “rise”) syndrome, which is a rare but serious disease. Women who are pregnant should not take ibuprofen unless their doctor tells them to.

Revised September 2011

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