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Chickenpox (Varicella) - What Happens

The first weeks after catching the virus

About 14 to 16 days after contact with a person infected with the virus, the first symptoms of chickenpox usually develop. Most people feel sick and have a fever, a decreased appetite, a headache, a cough, and a sore throat.

  • Some children get the chickenpox rash without first having the early symptoms.
  • Babies 6 months old and younger may have some protection against chickenpox from antibodies passed on by their mothers. So if they are infected with the virus, they may not have many symptoms.
  • People with weak immune systems may get the first symptoms of chickenpox sooner than the usual 10 to 14 days after exposure.

Chickenpox is most contagious from 2 to 3 days before the rash appears until all the blisters have crusted over.

The chickenpox rash

The chickenpox rash camera.gif usually appears on the upper body about 1 or 2 days after the first symptoms start. The trunk usually is most affected, and the arms and legs the least. The rash also may spread to the scalp, face, nose, and mouth. In rare cases, it spreads into the eyelid lining (conjunctiva), into the clear covering over the eye (cornea), inside the throat, or into the genital area.

It takes about 1 or 2 days for a chickenpox red spot (macule) to go through all its stages:

  • Red or swollen spots or bumps appear and turn into blisters that are filled with clear or cloudy fluid and that look like pimples.
  • The blisters break open, often leaking fluid.
  • A dry crust forms over the broken blisters as they heal.

Possible complications

Skin infection is the most common complication for children under age 5. Skin infection can form after the rash is scratched. Scratching allows bacteria from the skin or under the fingernails to get into a chickenpox blister. The infection can become serious if it isn't treated. An infected blister also may leave a scar.

Some people also are at increased risk of more serious problems from chickenpox. This higher-risk group includes newborns, teenagers, adults—especially pregnant women—and those who have weak immune systems.

Although you become immune to the chickenpox virus after you have had chickenpox, the virus will still be in your body. The virus can later cause shingles (herpes zoster), usually when you are an older adult. About 1 in 5 people who have chickenpox will later get shingles.1 The shingles vaccine can help prevent shingles or make shingles less painful.

    This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http:// cancer .gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

    WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

    Last Updated: August 23, 2013
    This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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