Understanding Chickenpox -- the Basics

What Is Chickenpox?

Chickenpox (varicella), a viral illness characterized by a very itchy red rash, used to be one of the most common infectious diseases of childhood. But as a result of the wide use of vaccinations since the 1990s, it has become so uncommon that many doctors in practice now have never seen it.

Chickenpox is usually mild in children, but adults run the risk of serious complications, including bacterial pneumonia.

People who have had chickenpox almost always develop lifetime immunity (meaning you can't get it again). However, the virus remains dormant in the body, and it can reactivate later in life and cause shingles.

Because the chickenpox virus can pass from a pregnant woman to her unborn child, possibly causing birth defects, doctors often advise women considering pregnancy to confirm their immunity with a blood test.

What Causes Chickenpox?

Chickenpox is caused by the herpes zoster virus, also known as the varicella zoster virus. It is spread by droplets from a sneeze or cough, or by contact with the clothing, bed linens, or oozing blisters of an infected person. The onset of symptoms occurs seven to 21 days after exposure. The disease is most contagious a day before the rash appears and up to seven days after, or until the rash is completely dry and scabbed.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 19, 2017



World Health Organization. 

March of Dimes. 


Cohen & Powderly: Infectious Diseases, Elsevier, 2004.

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