Almost everyone suffers with the “pox” once in their lives, usually as children.
Chicken pox is a common childhood illness characterised by intense itching, fever and the typical chicken pox symptom of an easily recognisable rash producing as many as 1500 tiny blisters across the whole body. Despite generally being referred to as a childhood illness chicken pox is frequently seen in adults.
Chicken pox is related to small pox and for many hundreds of years was not recognised by health care providers as being a less lethal infection. Chicken pox is also known as the varicella zoster virus which is extremely contagious. Most cases of chicken pox appear during the winter and early spring months, however, recent vaccination drives have meant a drastic reduction in the number of cases.
Chicken pox symptoms rarely appear until the varicella virus has been present, and multiplying, in the body for as long as three weeks. The varicella virus associated with chicken pox finds its way into the body through mucus membranes in the nose, mouth or eyes as well as through any breaks in the skin. The virus will begin to reproduce almost immediately and by the time the classic chicken pox rash appears the replicated varicella virus will have travelled several of the major organs of the body.
Individuals who do not exhibit any chicken pox symptoms are, in fact, at their most contagious just prior to the eruption of the rash. It is this characteristic of the disease which makes chicken pox so contagious.
The virus is passed along in the usual ways – coughing, sneezing or even the liquid from the blisters, may result in airborne particles of the virus being inhaled by those in contact with an infected chicken pox patient.
Of course the classic chicken pox symptoms include the blistery rash and incessant itching. However, as the immune system begins to fight the virus infection it often produces a fever lasting around three days. Adults generally experience a fever prior to the appearance of the rash whilst in children the reverse is usually the case.
Chicken pox blisters are filled with clear liquid which stimulates the nerve cells in the skin resulting in the itching which often feels intolerable. Initial chicken pox symptoms include tiny red spots on the skin, no more than 4 millimetres in diameter, which typically burst and scab within four days.
The severity of the rash is dependent on a number of factors including the age of the patient, overall condition of their skin and whether or not they have been vaccinated against the disease. Individuals who have been vaccinated against chicken pox may still be infected with the disease – this is known as a breakthrough case – but the rash will be much less severe with only around 50 blisters being evident.
The classic chicken pox generally shows itself first on the scalp, face and torso, however the blisters quickly spread across the whole body and may affect the mouth, eyelids and genitalia.
No longer infectious
Once the blistery rash begins to dry and scab over the individual is no longer infectious to others. In order to prevent the virus passing to, possibly more vulnerable people, chicken pox sufferers should be quarantined until the rash begins to scab over.
Once the bout of chicken pox is over the virus is no longer active, however, it does remain dormant in the nerve cells of the body and may be reactivated later as the disease known as shingles.