Generally, one thinks of chickenpox as a children’s disease but adults can catch it, especially if they have a weakened immune system, and when they do, complications are more commonplace.
Occasionally, people have also been known to catch chickenpox a second time - even when they definitely know they have had it before.
Chickenpox is highly contagious and at our age it is quite possible that we will be exposed to chickenpox through grandchildren. So it makes sense to know a bit about the disease.
Chickenpox is an infection caused by a virus called varicella-zoster. It is caught through person to person contact or sometimes through infected clothing or bedding.
The incubation period, the time between when you become infected and when symptoms begin to appear, can be anything from 11 days to three weeks. The most infectious period is one or two days before the first rash appears, but a person can remain contagious until the first spots have crusted over; often around five or six days after the first appearance of the chickenpox rash.
The early symptoms are often a mild headache and fever together with a loss of appetite, some coughing or sneezing and a general feeling of not being very well. The first clear symptom of chickenpox though is when the rash starts to appear. This usually starts with a small flat rash with red spots, often on the face and scalp first before spreading to the chest, arms and legs. Some people get spots inside their mouths and noses as well. The spots become filled with fluid and are usually very itchy. They can vary quite a lot in size.
These spots can go on to develop into blisters containing pus. The blisters will usually crust over within a few days to form scabs and then will finally disappear around two weeks later.
Chickenpox doesn’t necessarily scar and often sufferers recover with no long term effects at all; but if the spots become infected, perhaps from being opened up by scratching, then a scar can occur.
Generally chickenpox is not too severe and there are no serious problems. However, it can be more dangerous for adults, especially adults who may have a weakened immune system from taking other medication or from other existing problems.
In these cases, the most frequent complication is pneumonia, or inflammation of the lung tissue. Chickenpox occasionally can cause encephalitis (inflammation in the brain) or ataxia - which causes unsteadiness in walking and a loss of co-ordination.
Very rarely, other serious complications can occur, such as myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and glomerulonephritis (kidney inflammation).
Generally, even with complications, adults who catch chickenpox recover without long term effects. It can redevelop later as shingles - see the Laterlife Health story on Shingles in 2009 . Generally there is no specific treatment although medication can be prescribed to relieve the symptoms including the irritation.
Occasionally your doctor may prescribe an antiviral drug such as acyclovir. This does not kill the virus, but it helps to stop the virus from multiplying. However, it needs to be started with 24 hours of the first rash developing, after this time it won’t have much effect.
The main thing for adults is to be aware that if they have been exposed to someone with chickenpox, it is not just a childhood disease and there could be a small risk of catching it themselves.
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