Varicella-zoster virus, the virus responsible for causing chickenpox, is infamous in part because it is highly transmissible. Today, however, chickenpox is much less common in the United States than it once was.

The varicella virus spreads via particles transmitted through the air, as well as through skin-to-skin contact. Around two days after exposure, blisters begin to form. In addition to these blister-like rashes, the infected person begins itching. Other symptoms include fatigue and fever. Although the symptoms are uncomfortable, chickenpox is generally not life threatening. However, chickenpox can present a more serious threat to babies, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems. In rare cases, chickenpox can cause major complications, such as pneumonia.

Chicken pox is not as common in the United States as it used to be. Chickenpox used to cause about 4 million cases each year. Now, thanks to the chickenpox vaccine, which is approximately 90 percent effective in preventing chickenpox after two doses, the disease is much less common.

The chickenpox vaccine was first used in the United States in 1995. Since 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended children receive two doses of the vaccine: one at twelve to fifteen months and the other at four to six years. This vaccine is available on its own or in combination with the measles mumps rubella (MMR) vaccine. While the chickenpox vaccine is highly effective in protecting individuals and communities, you can still get chicken pox if you have been vaccinated, but symptoms will likely be much milder than those experienced by someone who has not been vaccinated.

The varicella virus can be treated with an antiviral known as acyclovir, but since cases are often mild, it is preferable to allow chickenpox to simply run its course. The symptoms, particularly itching, can be alleviated with home treatments, including calamine lotion and oatmeal baths. Relieving itching is especially important so that the infected person does not cut the blisters, which could lead to an infection and allow the virus to spread more readily.

The varicella virus does not only cause chickenpox; it can reactivate later in life and lead to shingles, which causes a painful skin rash and affects the nervous system. Someone with shingles can still spread the varicella virus, but the person they infect will develop chickenpox, not shingles. Like chickenpox, shingles is common, affecting one-third of the U.S. population at some point in their lives.

 

Varicella

This photomicrograph shows some of the changes visible in human tissue infected with the varicella zoster virus. 

antiviral
Noun

drug used to treat a viral infection.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Noun

agency, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, whose mission is "to create the expertise, information, and tools that people and communities need to protect their healththrough health promotion, prevention of disease, injury and disability, and preparedness for new health threats."

chickenpox
Noun

disease common in children; caused by the varicella-zoster virus and characterized by itchy blisters on the skin

contagious
Adjective
capable of being transmitted by contact with an infected person or object.
pneumonia
Noun

infection where lungs fill with fluid.

rash
Noun

irritating skin eruption.

shingles
Noun

reactivated varicella-zoster virus; often occurs in adulthood.

transmissible
Adjective

capable of being spread.

vaccine
Noun
preparation of a weakened or killed pathogen, or of a portion of the pathogen's structure that upon administration stimulates antibody production against the pathogen but is incapable of causing severe infection itself.
virus
Noun

pathogenic agent that lives and multiplies in a living cell.