Chickenpox is a highly contagious infection caused by a virus known as varicella-zoster.(1) The overwhelming incidence of this infection can be gauged from the fact that it was once regarded as an inevitable disease of childhood because almost every person was likely to be afflicted by it before reaching adulthood. While commonly associated with children, this disease can affect people of all ages.
With the introduction of the chickenpox vaccine in the 1990s, there has been a marked decrease in the incidence of chickenpox all over the world. However, people who have neither been previously infected by the virus nor received vaccination against it continue to be at risk.
Similar to other viral infections such as cold and flu, this disease can spread through air or contact with saliva, mucus, or fluid from blisters of an infected individual. The infected person becomes contagious enough to transmit the virus to those around them from a day or two before the rashes appear and remains so until all the blisters have dried.(2)
At the outset of the infection, the affected person may develop a super-itchy skin rash with small red spots, which gradually grow into fluid-filled blisters. As the disease progresses, these blisters pop to release discharge. The ruptured blisters then crust over to form scabs before finally healing and falling off.
Chickenpox cases, particularly in children, are generally mild and resolve on their own within 1–2 weeks. It is also highly unlikely for a person to suffer through this ailment more than once. However, the chickenpox virus tends to stick around dormant in the nervous system even after the patient has fully recovered and can raise its ugly head in the form of a painful illness called shingles later in life. The likelihood for developing shingles, however, is significantly less for children who have been immunized against the virus. If at all, the disease will generally present mild symptoms and no complications in the case of vaccinated children. Severe cases of chickenpox are typically associated with older adults.
What Causes Chickenpox?
The prime culprit at the root of this reasonably common infection is the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). This virus is a member of the herpes family of viruses and is a particularly contagious one and can be found throughout the world. One can contract this virus through the slightest and briefest contact with an infected person, so much so that a person carrying this virus poses a threat of transmitting it to others from 48 hours before the blisters even begin to show and remains contagious until all the blisters have crusted over. The standard modes of transmission for this virus are:(1)(3)
- Touching the skin of an infected person with an active rash.
- Inhaling the virus when an infected person coughs or sneezes in your vicinity.
- Coming in contact with the fluid discharge from the blisters of an infected person.
What are the Symptoms of Chickenpox?
The incubation period for the virus is about 10–21 days, which is the time it takes for the symptoms to develop once being exposed to the virus. The most apparent giveaway of an active chickenpox infection is the telltale itchy rash that starts off as raised pink or red papules that gradually grow into small fluid-filled blisters, which eventually rupture and form crusty, scabbed lesions. These bumps can first appear on the face, scalp, and torso and then spread to your limbs. The severity of the rash may vary from a few sporadic spots to numerous rashes encompassing the entire body.(1)
Other symptoms that may precede the occurrence of the rash include:
- Pain and tenderness around the blisters
- A headache
- Loss of appetite
- Aching muscles
- A general feeling of malaise or being unwell
- Breathing problems(4)(3)
People who have come down with this disease despite being vaccinated tend to experience relatively milder symptoms. Usually, the worst symptoms of chickenpox subside in approximately two weeks.
VZV is most notably a threat for children below the age of 2 as they are most susceptible to contracting it. Further still, as many as 90% of all cases of this infection occur in young children. So, while children below the age of 10 are particularly prone to this disease, it is not exclusive to them. There is considerable precedence that suggests that older kids and adults can just as well fall victim to this infection.(5)(3) Moreover, there are certain other risk factors which have to be taken into account, namely:
- People who haven’t had the virus before are more likely to pick it up.
- People who haven’t been immunized against the virus are at an increased risk.
- People with compromised immunity due to certain medications, cancer, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
- People who live with children.
- People who are employed in a school or child-care facility.
Complications Regarding Chickenpox
- Pregnant women
- Newborns and infants up to 4 weeks old
- People with weakened immune systems
All these vulnerable groups are at risk of developing VZV pneumonia or bacterial infections of the skin, bloodstream (sepsis), joints, soft tissues, or bones. One way of knowing that the blisters have become infected with bacteria is that the adjoining skin becomes red, tender, or sore. In the event that this happens, the risk of complications increases.
Other complications include:
- Encephalitis – A kind of brain fever that causes acute inflammation of the brain.
- Reye’s syndrome – A rare but serious condition that usually afflicts children and teenagers who have had a recent bout of viral infection such as chickenpox or flu. It is a rapidly progressing disease that can cause the liver and brain to dangerously swell.
Most people who develop complications will make a full recovery.
How to Prevent Chickenpox?
There is only so much one can do to avoid contact with an infected person to minimize their risk of catching the virus. The fact that chickenpox does not present physical symptoms right away and becomes contagious even before the appearance of the characteristic blisters, makes the prevention even harder.
Getting yourself and your child immunized from the virus is by far the best way to prevent this disease. The success rate for the varicella vaccine is estimated to be 98% in children and 75% in adolescents and adults, given that they have received both the stipulated doses. Moreover, even if you contract the infection post-immunization, the condition is likely to present mild symptoms with an almost negligible chance of ensuing complications. This vaccine is, by and large, an effective safeguard that is particularly recommended for:
- Young children – Two doses of varicella vaccine, one administered between the age of 12 and 15 months and the next between the age of 4 and 6 years.
- Unvaccinated older children – Two catch-up doses. For children aged between 7 and 12 years, the doses are to be given at least three months apart, whereas, for children aged 13 or older, the stipulated gap is 4 weeks.
- Unvaccinated adults who are increasingly susceptible to getting exposed to the virus such as teachers, military personnel, childcare employees, women in the reproductive age bracket, frequent international travelers, health care workers, and adults who live with children – Two doses, administered at least four to eight weeks apart.
The varicella vaccine is not advised for:
- Pregnant women
- People with active allergies to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin
- People with hampered immunity due to medical conditions such as HIV or because they are on immune-suppressing medications
Furthermore, if you have already had a case of chickenpox, you are more or less, immune to the culpable virus for life. Similarly, if an expecting mother has had chickenpox prior to the pregnancy, she will pass on her immunity to her child through the placenta and breastmilk. But this protection would last the baby only for the first few months of his/her life. As for adults over 60, there is an added option of shingles vaccine that they can avail but only after running it by their doctor.
When to See a Doctor
As soon as you notice the first signs of possible varicella infection, ask your doctor to examine the symptoms for a proper diagnosis. After assessing the severity of the condition, your doctor may prescribe medications to mitigate the symptoms and treat complications, if necessary. However, it may be prudent to inform your doctor beforehand that you suspect a case of chickenpox before venturing to the clinic so that you are not made to wait and thereby infect other patients in the waiting room.(3)
Moreover, some of the alarming signals that warrant a visit to the doctors include:
- Blisters that turn red, warm, or tender, which may be an indication of possible secondary bacterial skin infection.
- A rash that starts to bleed
- Immunocompromised due to a chronic illness or have a history of weakened immunity
- Dizziness or disorientation post the occurrence of the rash
- Rapid heartbeat, tremors, and shortness of breath following the initial symptoms
- Stiffness in the neck
- Temperature higher than 102° F (38.9° C)
- A rash that spreads and affects one or both eyes
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of muscle coordination
- A cough that tends to get worse with time
- Sharing a house with someone who is immune deficient or younger than 6 months
Chickenpox is usually a non-threatening and relatively mild ailment that resolves on its own in a matter of 5 to 10 days. Much of the discomfort associated with this condition is on account of the stubborn and itchy rash that takes forever to heal, or so it seems. Lucky for you, there are a few nifty ways to dampen the severity of such symptoms while the body goes through its natural healing process.(1)(3)
- You can use over-the-counter medicines for pain relief.
- It’s best to avoid anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen, as they can end up aggravating your condition.
- Acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, can be used instead to relieve a fever if present.(4)
- Avoid scratching the lesions as it can cause slow healing and increase the risk of bacterial infection. Make sure to regularly trim your child’s fingernails to limit scarring and to reduce the risk of bacterial infections caused by scratching or picking at the blisters. To that end, you can even put soft gloves, socks, or mittens on your child’s hands, especially if he/she tends to scratch during sleep.(4)
- It is essential to remain in an environment that precipitates the least amount of sweating, as sweat can aggravate the itch and make your lesions sting.
- Take ample fluids, preferably water, to prevent dehydration and help your body eliminate the virus faster.
- Stay off foods that are too spicy, salty, or make your mouth sore.
However, you can try some natural remedies to alleviate some of the symptoms and get relief from itching as the virus takes its course.
Simple Ways to Treat Chickenpox at Home
Here are the top 10 home remedies for chickenpox.
1. Use Baking Soda with Water
- Stir 1/2 tablespoon of baking soda in 1 glass of water. Use a soft washcloth to put the solution on the affected parts of the body and allow it to dry.
- Mix 1/2 or 1 cup of baking soda in your bath water and soak in it.
2. Apply Indian Lilac Paste
- Take a handful of neem leaves, crush them, and apply the paste on the affected areas.
- Whip up a medicinal tonic by adding neem leaves to 1 cup of hot water. Add honey for taste and steep for 3 to 5 minutes. Drink this tea to fight the infection from within.
- You can Add neem leaves in bath water also.
3. Drink Soup Made of Carrot and Coriander
A soup made of carrots and coriander is highly beneficial in the treatment of chickenpox. It is rich in antioxidants that help in the healing process.(9)
- Cut up 100 grams of carrot to get about 1 cup of chopped carrots, and chop 60 grams or 1½ cups of fresh coriander leaves. Boil them in about 2¼ cups of water until half the amount of liquid evaporates.
- Drink this soup once a day for about a month. You can also eat boiled carrots and coriander leaves for added nutrients.
4. Soothe Your Skin with Oatmeal
Moreover, you can even apply an oatmeal lotion to the affected skin, which can help soothe and moisturize the itchy blisters.
- Grind 2 cups of oatmeal into a fine powder.
- Put the powdered oatmeal in two liters (1/2 gallon) of lukewarm water.
- Soak in the bathwater for 15 to 20 minutes.
5. Apply Chamomile Tea Compress
Another effective all-natural aid to alleviate chickenpox itch and soothe the skin of the affected areas to a certain degree is chamomile tea. The therapeutic value of this tea, especially for your aggravated skin, is due to its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.(10)
- Douse 2-3 three chamomile tea bags in 1 cup of warm water and allow it to cool.
- Dip a soft cotton pad or washcloth in the tea and apply it to the itchy areas of the skin.
- Make sure to gently pat the skin dry once you are done applying the compresses.
Alternatively, you can even brew a cup of chamomile tea to help fight the virus from inside and calm some of the persistent itchings. This tea is safe to be consumed by children as well, and the taste can be made more palatable by adding a little amount of honey to it.
Chamomile tea bags, either on their own or in conjunction with a handful of porridge oats, can be added to warm (not too hot) bath water to fix up an ideal soak session for your blister-ridden skin.
6. Coat the Affected Area with Honey
Honey will provide relief from itchiness and help heal the blisters caused by chickenpox.(11)
- Get a good-quality pure honey and coat the affected area with it.
- Repeat the process two to three times a day until the scars heal.
7. Sip on a Herbal Tea
You can also try a mild and soothing herbal tea made from herbs such as, holy basil, marigold, lemongrass, and lemon balm.(9)
- Put 1 tablespoon of herbs of your liking in 1 cup of boiling water. Let it steep for 3 to 5 minutes and then strain it.
- Add a little cinnamon, honey, and lemon juice. Sip the tea slowly. You may also add ginger or agave nectar for additional flavor options.
- Drink this non-caffeinated herbal tea few times a day, or as often as you like, for best results.
8. Treat Your Skin with Lavender Oil
Lavender oil is another effective remedy to reduce skin irritation and itching caused by chickenpox.(9)
- Dilute a little lavender essential oil with a carrier oil, such as almond oil or coconut oil and apply it to the affected area. Leave it on until it dries; no need to rinse or wash it off. Repeat twice daily.
- Another option is to add a few drops each of lavender and chamomile essential oil in lukewarm water. Soak in this bath for about 10 minutes.
9. Use Sandalwood Oil
- Add a few drops of sandalwood essential oil to a teaspoon of carrier oil, such as almond oil, and apply on the rashes. Do this regularly until all lesions are adequately healed.
10. Apply Calendula Paste on the Affected Area
Calendula, also known as marigold flower, can be used to relieve the itching caused by chickenpox.(14)
- Put 2 tablespoons of calendula flowers and 1 teaspoon of witch hazel leaves in 1 cup of water and let it sit overnight.
- After steeping overnight, grind the mixture thoroughly and apply the paste directly on the rashes.
- Rinse it off after the mixture dries completely.
- During the early stages of this disease, including figs in your diet might help.(15)
- Drink fresh fruit and vegetable juice.
- Eat more vitamin C-rich foods.(16)
- To reduce the overall appearance of scars, apply vitamin E oil to the affected areas.(17)
- Over-the-counter calamine lotion can be helpful in relieving itching.(4)
Expert Answers (Q&A)
About Dr. Daquesha C. Chever, DO: Dr. Chever is a Board-Certified Family Medicine Physician and renowned author of ‘Step Into Your Destiny; Your Next Best Is Waiting’, speaker, and consultant. She earned her Doctorate degree from Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and completed her Residency Family Medicine at NSU-Palmetto General Hospital in Miami, Florida, with a passion for disease processes of the skin and primary disease prevention.
Since graduation, Dr. Chever found her niche for teaching, and was awarded Clinical Preceptor of the year at her Alma mater in 2015. She is currently employed as a Urgent Care Physician and enjoys being available to meet the health care demands of her community.
- Parmet S. Chickenpox. JAMA. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/198220. Published February 18, 2004.
- Paediatrics Child Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2830771/. Published 1999.
- Health Library. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/infectious_diseases/chickenpox_varicella_85,P00619.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Editors. Prevention & treatment. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/chickenpox/about/prevention-treatment.html. Published April 11, 2016.
- Lim Y, Chew F, Tan A. Risk factors for breakthrough varicella in healthy children. Archives of Disease in Childhood. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1717776/. Published December 1998.
- Nationwide Children’s Hospital. https://www.nationwidechildrens.org/conditions/chickenpox. Published September 2011.
- Tiwari R, Verma AK, Chakraborty S. Neem (Azadirachta indica) and its Potential for Safeguarding Health of Animals and Humans: A Review. Journal of Biological Sciences. https://scialert.net/fulltextmobile/?doi=jbs.2014.110.123. Published 2014.
- Pankaj S, Lokeshwar T, Mukesh B. Review on neem (Azadirachta indica): Thousand problems one solution. International Research Journal of Pharmacy. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/288971662. Published December 2011.
- Orchard A, Vuuren Svan. Commercial Essential Oils as Potential Antimicrobials to Treat Skin Diseases. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5435909/. Published May 4, 2017.
- Shenefelt PD. Herbal Treatment for Dermatologic Disorders. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92761/. Published January 1, 1970.
- Burlando B, Cornara L. Honey in dermatology and skin care: a review. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24305429. Published December 2013.
- Moy RL, Levenson C. Sandalwood Album Oil as a Botanical Therapeutic in Dermatology. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5749697/. Published October 1, 2017.
- Sharma M, Levenson C, Clements I. East Indian Sandalwood Oil (EISO) Alleviates Inflammatory and Proliferative Pathologies of Psoriasis. Frontiers in Pharmacology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5352686/. Published March 16, 2017.
- Pać RD-. Medicinal plants used in the treatment of inflammatory skin diseases. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3834722/. Published June 20, 2013.
- Subash S, Essa MM, Asmi, AA. Chronic Dietary Supplementation of 4% Figs on the Modification of Oxidative Stress in Alzheimer’s Disease Transgenic Mouse Model. BioMed Research International. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4090508/. Published June 19, 2014.
- Pullar JM, Carr AC, Vissers MCM. The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health. Nutrients. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579659/. Published August 12, 2017.
- Baumann LS, Spencer J. The effects of topical vitamin E on the cosmetic appearance of scars. Dermatologic Surgery. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10417589. Published April 1999.