Written by April Reinhardt (last updated September 5, 2008)
Categorized as one of the five childhood exanthems—or rashes—chickenpox was once a significant cause of childhood death. The five classical rashes are German measles, roseola, chickenpox, measles, and fifth disease. Mumps is not considered a childhood exanthem since it does not cause a rash. Chickenpox causes a rash and is a skin disease-causing illness.
If you're a baby boomer, you may recall being vaccinated in school with the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine in the early 70s. I still bear the lumpy scar on my upper left arm at the multi-needle injection site. Today, children are vaccinated against MMR as well as chickenpox as part of their regular childhood vaccination schedule, and most grade schools and colleges require proof of immunization before they are accepted to attend the school.
Because chickenpox produces a skin rash, it is often confused with other exanthems. Characteristics of chickenpox are:
Chickenpox is highly contagious, spread from person to person through the air from an infected person's sneezing or coughing, and via direct contact. If you touch the fluid from a chickenpox blister, you can spread the disease. A person who has chickenpox is contagious for two days before a rash appears, and until all of the blisters have scabbed over—usually five to ten days.
Since chickenpox is viral in nature, antibiotics are not used to treat the disease. There are ways to treat the symptoms of chickenpox and to ease the itch and pain of the skin lesions:
Since chickenpox is highly contagious, wash your hands often if you have the disease, or are treating someone at home who has chickenpox. The fluid within the chickenpox blisters carries the virus and can be spread until the blisters scab over. Keep soiled towels, bedding, clothes, and other contaminated items separate from the rest of the household laundry, and use very hot water to wash and high heat to dry those items. Keep the infected person away from pregnant women, newborns, and elderly people, as their auto-immune systems may be compromised.
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