Chickenpox in Adults

What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is an infection caused by the varicella virus. Chickenpox is also called varicella.

Most adults don’t get chickenpox because they had chickenpox as a child or have had the shot that protects against chickenpox. They are immune, which means that their body can fight off another infection and they do not get sick. However, when a teen or adult is not immune and does get chickenpox, the infection can be more serious than it is in children. Possible complications are pneumonia or problems with the kidneys, heart, or joints. The brain and nervous system may be affected. Sometimes an infection of the skin develops because bacteria get into sores when they are scratched. People who have trouble fighting infections are especially at risk for problems. This includes people being treated for cancer with chemotherapy or radiation, people who use steroids or other medicines that suppress the immune system, and people who have HIV infection.

After you have chickenpox, the virus stays in your body for the rest of your life. The virus can later cause shingles. Shingles causes a painful, blistering rash, usually in one area, like the belly, back, or face. The rash is almost always on just one side of the body.

What is the cause?

Anyone who has not had chickenpox or the chickenpox shot can get chickenpox. The virus can be easily passed to other people in several ways:

  • It can spread through the air by infected people when they sneeze or cough.
  • It can spread if you touch the chickenpox sores and don’t carefully wash your hands afterwards.
  • It can spread if you have close contact with someone who has shingles.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms usually appear 10 to 21 days after you are exposed to the virus. The symptoms include:

  • A red, itchy, rash of small, fluid-filled blisters or sores that usually appear first on the face, scalp, chest, or back
  • Feeling tired and irritable
  • Fever
  • Body aches and pains
  • Mild headache

Chickenpox is contagious 1 to 2 days before you see the rash. It stays contagious until all of the blisters have crusted over. This usually takes 4 to 7 days.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you.

How is it treated?

Your provider may prescribe an antiviral medicine to shorten the time you are sick. The medicine may also help you have fewer sores. Antiviral medicine is most helpful if it is started within the first 72 hours after you first start having blisters.

If you have chickenpox when you are pregnant, the virus can infect the baby and cause birth defects or other serious problems, including death of the baby. If you are pregnant and think you have been exposed to chickenpox, talk to your healthcare provider.

How can I take care of myself?

  • For itching take a lukewarm bath every few hours for the first few days. Add 2 ounces (4 tablespoons) of baking soda, cornstarch, or dry, uncooked oats to a tub of water. Use soap in one of the baths each day to clean as much bacteria off the skin as possible. Gently pat your skin dry. Do not rub it dry. After your bath, clean the tub before someone else uses it.
  • You can try using calamine lotion on sores to help relieve itching, but don’t put it in or near your eyes.
  • Put a towel-covered ice pack or cool moist washcloth on itchy areas for 20 to 30 minutes. Don’t share the towel or washcloth with anyone else.
  • If itching is severe or is making it hard to sleep, take a nonprescription antihistamine. Antihistamines may cause side effects, especially for older adults. They may worsen other medical problems. Ask your provider to recommend a safe antihistamine for you.
  • Try not to scratch the blisters or the scabs as they heal. Trim your fingernails and wash your hands often with soap and warm water to help keep the rash from getting infected if you do scratch it. Scratching the blisters or scabs before they heal can also cause large scars.
  • If you have sores in your mouth, eat foods that are cool, soft, and bland. Avoid any foods that are acidic, spicy, or salty.
  • Take a nonprescription pain reliever, such as acetaminophen, for headache, fever, or general aches and pains. Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Read the label carefully and take as directed. Unless recommended by your provider, don’t take more than 3000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours or take it for longer than 10 days. To make sure you don’t take too much, check other medicines you take to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medicine.
  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. Ask your healthcare provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
  • Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent chickenpox?

A vaccine is available to help protect against chickenpox. Two shots of the varicella vaccine are recommended for people 13 years or older who have not had chickenpox and who have not been previously vaccinated. If you still get chickenpox after getting the vaccine, you may have a less severe infection.

If you are planning to get pregnant and have not had chickenpox or the vaccine, talk with your healthcare provider about getting the vaccine and ask how long you should wait to get pregnant.

If you have not had chickenpox or the chickenpox shot and you are exposed to chickenpox, your healthcare provider may give you a shot of varicella-zoster immune globulin (VZIG) to help prevent the infection.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-21
Last reviewed: 2013-12-04
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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