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Chickenpox (adults)

 


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Class
Immune system
Description
Chickenpox is usually a mild but highly infectious disease. It can be spread from one person to another very quickly through direct contact with the broken chickenpox blisters and also when someone with the infection coughs or sneezes. Usually you will have chickenpox only once during your lifetime because your body produces antibodies to the virus to protect you against reinfection. Shingles is an infection of a nerve by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Anyone who has had chickenpox in the past may go on to develop shingles, however shingles is not infectious.
* for more information about shingles please go to the shingles condition page.
Causes
Chickenpox is caused by the Varicella-Zoster virus. Most people will catch the virus as a child. In adults, chickenpox can be more serious than in children. It takes between 10-21 days to develop the infection after being in contact with the infected person, this is called the incubation period. After you have chickenpox, the virus remains in the nerves but is not active, however some years later the virus can reactivate, causing the symptoms of shingles.
Symptoms
Before the chickenpox rash appears on your skin you may experience mild-flu like symptoms including; a high temperature, a headache, feeling sick and general malaise. The chickenpox rash will appear a few days after these symptoms are noticed. The rash consists of small crops of spots, which look like tiny blisters. The rash can occur anywhere on the body, including behind the ears, scalp and the soles of the feet. You will be infectious from about 2 days before the rash appears, until all of the spots have scabbed over, which usually takes about 5-7 days. You should therefore stay at home until all of the chickenpox blisters have fully crusted over. The chickenpox spots are extremely itchy, however they will not scar unless you keep scratching them.
Treatment
If you have chickenpox, you should take regular doses of paracetamol or aspirin to help stop the aches and pains. Children can be given the correct dose of infant paracetamol. If you are having trouble sleeping, the pharmacist can recommend an antihistamine to help with the itch. A cooling gel can be applied to the affected areas to help relieve the itching, breaking the itch, scratch, infection cycle and reducing the chance of scarring.
When to consult your pharmacist
Visit your pharmacist if you think that you may have chickenpox. Your pharmacist will be able to confirm your illness.

Tell your pharmacist if you think you may be pregnant. Your pharmacist will reassure you that there is no risk to your baby if you have had chickenpox before, or will advise you to see your doctor straight away if you are not sure whether you have had chickenpox before.

If you have a fever or the rash is painful, your pharmacist will be able to recommend medicines to reduce a high temperature and ease pain. If the rash is causing a lot of discomfort the pharmacist will recommend calamine lotion to be applied directly to the rash or will recommend an antihistamine that you will be able to take.

Always tell your pharmacist if you are taking any other medicines, including supplements bought from health shops, or if you have any other illness.
When to consult your doctor
You should contact your GP immediately if you have chickenpox and:
  • You are pregnant
  • You have a disease of the immune system, like leukaemia or HIV
  • You have breathing difficulties or chest pains
  • You think any of the chickenpox blisters have become infected
You should also seek medical advice immediately if you have a child under 4 weeks old who you think may have chickenpox.

Reviewed on 6 April 2010


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