Varicella (chickenpox), a highly contagious disease, is characterized by fluid-filled blisters that open and crust over as the symptoms progress. For people who are at a higher risk of developing serious complications, antiviral drugs are used for the treatment.
Varicella, commonly referred to as chickenpox, is an infectious disease caused by varicella zoster virus (VZV). It commonly affects kids under 10 years of age. It is a highly contagious disease, and the virus can be transmitted through direct contact with skin blisters or through inhalation of respiratory secretions of an infected person. An infected individual remains contagious from 2 days prior to the appearance of a skin rash until all blisters turn into dry scabs. People with a compromised immune system are at a higher risk of VZV infection than others.
The incubation period of varicella is about 10-20 days. During this period, the infected person manifests flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, abdominal pain, and sore throat. Early signs start with an itchy skin rash, particularly on the face, back, and abdomen. Within 2-3 days, the rash progresses and spreads to all parts of the body.
The rash appears as small red bumps that resemble pimples. These bumps develop into small fluid-filled blisters (size less than quarter of an inch), which consist of VZV. Initially, the fluid is clear and transparent, which turns cloudy afterwards. Blisters then open within a few days and crust over forming dry scabs. Chickenpox heals without scarring of the skin within 8-10 days after the onset of the symptoms.
It is observed that the symptoms are severe in adults as compared to kids. However, kids with skin disorders like eczema may develop severe symptoms. Pregnant women and people with compromised immune system are more susceptible to severe health complications of varicella. On an average, 1 out of every 50 varicella patients develop serious complications such as varicella pneumonia and encephalitis.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Varicella is diagnosed based on the appearance of the skin rash and medical history of the patient. In order to rule out other skin disorders, the physician may recommend viral culture. Healthy children and adults recover from this condition without any treatment. However, antiviral drugs may be prescribed to prevent serious complications. For effective treatment, antiviral medications are given within 24 hours after the onset of a skin rash.
Over-the-counter drugs to relieve itching can be administered under medical supervision. Home treatments like wet compresses on the affected skin, regular cleaning with soap and lukewarm water, and cotton clothing soothe the rash. An infection by this virus can be prevented by vaccinating the kids. Vaccination is effective in 70-90 percent of the cases. The first vaccine is usually given between 12-15 months and the booster is given between 4-6 years. Minors above 13 years who never had varicella should get two doses of the vaccine, under the prescription of a qualified physician.
Those who have primary infection with VZV are immune to this disease. However, in some cases, the virus remains in a dormant state within the nerve cells and reactivates after several years. It leads to a severe condition known as shingles (zoster) when it is activated. About 20% people with primary infection with VZV develop shingles later. An individual having shingles can spread the virus and cause varicella to those who were not infected by varicella before. Routine immunization by shingles vaccine prevents the reactivation of VZV virus.