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Chicken Pox Symptoms and Treatment

Updated on February 19, 2010

Chicken Pox is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus. It is characterized by a pox-like rash, and its name was probably derived from the word "chick-pea," because the skin lesions were thought to resemble the small round seeds of the chick-pea plant. In medical termi­nology, chicken pox is known as varicella.

Although chicken pox is generally considered to be a disease of children, it sometimes occurs in adults. It is most prevalent in children be­tween the ages of 2 and 8, and it is estimated that about 50% of all children have had chicken pox by the time they enter kindergarten. Once a person has had chicken pox, he is usually immune to the disease for the rest of his life.

Cause of Chicken Pox

The virus that produces chicken pox is a tiny particle about 0.22 microns in diameter. Because it appears to be identical with the virus that causes herpes zoster (an inflammatory dis­ease of the nerves, also known as shingles, that E reduces small, blisterlike skin eruptions), it is -equently referred to as the varicella-zoster (V-Z) virus, and doctors believe that chicken pox and herpes zoster are actually two different forms of the same disease. This theory is supported by cases showing that children have developed chicken pox after being exposed to adults with herpes zoster. Chicken pox develops when a child is first infected with the V-Z virus. When the disease subsides the virus remains in the body in a latent, or inactive, form and may, for unknown reasons, become activated and produce herpes zoster many years later.

Symptoms of Chicken Pox

The incubation period for chicken pox ranges from 11 to 20 days, with an average of 14 days. The first symptom is usually the ap­pearance of small, blisterlike lesions, called vesi­cles, on the skin. The vesicles vary in size from about ViQ to Vi inch (1.5 to 6 mm) in diameter, and they first appear on the scalp, face, and trunk. Over the next few days, these lesions break open and become encrusted, while fresh lesions appear on the arms and legs. In most cases, the lesions disappear within 5 to 20 days.

Although patients with chicken pox usually complain of itching, they are otherwise fairly well and their temperature usually ranges from 100° F to 102° F (38° C to 39° C).

Complications arising from chicken pox are rare. Sometimes bacterial skin infections occur, and these may lead to impetigo, conjunctivitis, or other infections. Disorders of the nervous system are extremely rare complications of chicken pox.

Treatment of Chicken Pox

There is no specific treatment for chicken pox. Itching of the skin may be relieved by applying soothing liquids, such as calamine lotion or a dilute solution of sodium bicarbonate. In infants and small children, it is usually ad­visable to keep their fingernails short to prevent them from scratching.

The skin lesions can usually be protected against bacterial infection by careful washing with soap and water. If the vesicles become in­fected, antibiotics are administered. Because pa­tients with chicken pox are considered to be contagious for five days after the rash has ap­peared, it is best to keep them isolated from other people during this period.

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