What is Varicella or chickenpox?Anchor Point:what
Varicella, more commonly known as chickenpox, is a highly infectious viral disease caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV). It can be followed later in life by herpes zoster or shingles which is a reactivation of VZV lying dormant in nerve cells.
Chickenpox is characterised by a rash which is often accompanied by fever, headache and a general feeling of being unwell. The rash usually starts on the face and scalp and progresses to the torso. Otherwise healthy children usually have 200-500 spots but this number can exceed 500 in adults.
Humans are the only species known to suffer from chickenpox. Usually the virus is transmitted from person to person through the air in small, infectious particles. These are released from skin, particularly when the rash is scratched or weeping, but can also be breathed out from the throats of patients with the disease. In addition the virus can cross the placenta at any stage of pregnancy.
Who is at risk?Anchor Point:who
In adults, chickenpox tends to be a more severe disease with more marked symptoms, a more severe rash and an increased recovery time than children. Adults also tend to have a higher incidence of complications. Other groups of people such as pregnant women, new born babies and those with immune system problems due to illness or treatments may experience more severe chickenpox with a higher rate of complications.
Complications of chickenpoxAnchor Point:complicate
Complications are more likely to occur in adults, pregnant women, new born babies and those with immune system problems; however even seemingly healthy children can develop serious complications and even die from this disease.
Complications of chickenpox disease in otherwise healthy people include most commonly:
- Viral pneumonia
- Secondary bacterial infections of the skin
- Central nervous system disorders
Prevention of chickenpoxAnchor Point:prevent
Due to the highly contagious nature of the virus, it is difficult to control it once a case appears. If someone in the house has chickenpox, the likelihood of someone else in the house catching it, who has not already had it, is as much as 90% i.e. 9 out of 10. Someone with chickenpox should try to stay away from other people where possible (e.g. a child could be kept off school) to reduce the risk of the infection spreading.
The Department of Health recommend varicella immunisation for all non-immune health care workers, who work in primary care and in hospitals (both in NHS and privately). Laboratory staff who may be exposed to varicella virus in the course of their work should also be offered vaccination.
Although varicella vaccine is not currently recommended for routine use in children, it is recommended for healthy susceptible contacts of immunocompromised patients where continuing close contact is unavoidable (e.g. siblings of a leukaemic child, or a child whose parent is undergoing chemotherapy).
Treatment of chickenpoxAnchor Point:treatment
Treatment normally involves alleviating the symptoms of chickenpox. A soothing lotion such as calamine can help to relieve the itch from the rash. Paracetamol or ibuprofen can help to ease any aches and pains and reduce the temperature. Aspirin should not be used during an attack of chickenpox due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome.