What Is Chickenpox? Facts About This Common Childhood Disease

Child with chickenpox

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  • Also known as varicella, chickenpox is a highly contagious viral infection that is brought on by the varicella zoster virus, a member of the herpes virus family. It is often associated with herpes zoster (shingles), but these two actually cause different diseases
  • Chickenpox can easily spread from an infected person to another. It spreads similarly to the cold virus, and infection can occur if you breathe in particles of the virus from the air

Also known as varicella, chickenpox is a highly contagious viral infection that is brought on by the varicella zoster virus,1 a member of the herpes virus family. It is often associated with herpes zoster (shingles), but these two actually cause different diseases.2

Chickenpox was first documented by Italian physician Giovanni Filippo in the 1500s. This disease commonly occurs in children, especially those under 12 years old.3 In fact, decades ago, almost every child developed chickenpox, which is why getting this illness was considered a “rite of passage” by some parents.

Where Did the Name ‘Chickenpox’ Come From?

No one knows exactly where chickenpox got its name, but there are many theories. In the early times, the disease was misdiagnosed as a mild form of smallpox, and was dubbed “chicken,” or coward-like, because of its milder effects. Another theory is that the red spots appear like marks left by a chicken’s bite. Another guess is that it was named after chickpeas, because of the blisters’ appearance. Some also say that “chicken” comes from the Old English word Yicche” or “Icchen,” which means “to itch.”4

What to Look Out for and Who Is at Risk

Chickenpox is characterized by a red and itchy rash that turn into blisters. Those who become infected can get as many as 250 to 500 itchy blisters at the height of the disease. Other common symptoms of chickenpox include malaise (generally feeling unwell) and fever.5 The duration of the disease can take anywhere between two and three weeks, including the incubation period.6

Most people usually contract the disease before they turn 15 years old, with the majority of cases occurring in those who are between 5 and 9 years old. However, it can occur at any age. Keep in mind that chickenpox is most severe in young infants and adults, so utmost care is necessary if anyone from these groups develops this illness.7

Is Chickenpox Contagious?

Yes, chickenpox can easily spread from an infected person to another. It spreads similarly to the cold virus, and infection can occur if you breathe in particles of the virus from the air. Touching the blisters or the fluid from the blisters directly can lead to an infection, too. It can also be passed on through saliva, or by using or touching items (clothes, eating utensils and personal care items like toothbrushes) that an infected person has handled or used.

Getting Chickenpox Actually Gives You Better Immunity in the Future

While getting chickenpox may seem frightening and worrisome, there is good news: It provides lifelong immunity, as the varicella zoster virus becomes dormant in the body.8 Treatment for chickenpox usually involves management of the symptoms and waiting for the virus to run its course.

In some rare cases, chickenpox may lead to certain complications, like pneumonia, bacterial infections and brain inflammation. However, this usually occurs only in people with compromised immune systems or other health problems. Thus, ensuring a robust immune system is an essential aspect of beating chickenpox.

MORE ABOUT CHICKENPOX

Chickenpox: An Introduction

What Is Chickenpox?

Chickenpox Symptoms

Chickenpox Causes

Chickenpox Treatment

Chickenpox Prevention

Chickenpox Diet

Chickenpox FAQ


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