Many consider chickenpox one of the rites of passage of childhood.
Chickenpox is a relatively harmless virus that, for most, becomes more of an annoyance rather than a life-threatening illness. However, it should be noted that complications from chickenpox can cause death in patients, especially children.
One of the most common complications of a case of chickenpox is Reye’s Syndrome. This rare condition occurs when a child with chickenpox takes an aspirin when running a fever.
There are instances where a child has developed bacterial infections as a result of having the chickenpox. Additionally, there are rare instances where patients have developed pneumonia or encephalitis. Sepsis is another rare complication of chickenpox.
Albeit it more uncomfortable the lethal, the outbreak stems from the highly contagious varicella zoster virus.
What exactly is chickenpox?
Chickenpox is a viral infection that manifests in the form of small, fluid-filled blisters. These blisters form a rash that often covers the entire body, even the bottom of one’s foot, and the inside of one’s mouth can be covered in these blisters.
In the United States, statistics show that between 100,000 and 200,000 people contract the virus per year. Furthermore, approximately 9000 of those patients require hospital treatment.
How is chickenpox spread?
The virus is highly contagious, and it spread is easily spread from person to person. One will develop outward symptoms about ten days to three weeks after initial exposure.
The virus can spread via airborne respiratory droplets, such as those produced when one sneezes or coughs. Varicella zoster is also spread via saliva (via kissing or sharing a drink or eating utensils). Chickenpox also spreads when one touches someone who carries the virus via hugs, handshakes, or merely touching the other person. The infection can spread via handling objects contaminated with the virus, such as a doorknob. Mothers can pass the virus to their babies via nursing, during pregnancy, and via childbirth.
The younger a child is, the more dangerous the viral infection can be. Children who are between the ages of two and ten do not have symptoms that are as severe as younger children and adults who experience an outbreak of chickenpox.
Besides the blisters and rash, what are the symptoms of chickenpox?
Most people believe that the presence of the fluid-filled blisters is the first sign of chickenpox, but they are not necessarily the initial symptoms.
Those who are adults with the condition may ignore some of the initial symptoms because they may be confused with other physical ailments.
Parents may also attribute the fatigue and fever associated with chickenpox to a cold or the flu – that is until the blisters appear on the child’s skin. Speaking of blisters, these pesky red spots may appear as ulcers, or they may scab over and look like a pimple. Again, these blisters can appear anywhere on the body, but it is essential to remember that not all outbreaks will be all over the body.
The rash is a secondary symptom. You’ll initially experience fever that induces a feeling of being very tired as well as a loss of appetite. It is important to note that many individuals will experience a headache, along with fever and fatigue.
Parents mustn’t give their children an aspirin to lessen the headache at this time. This is what causes Reye’s Syndrome, and it can be fatal in children.
Let’s talk about the chickenpox rash.
Those who fall victim to the varicella zoster virus do not wake up one day covered in small, red, pimple-like spots. The rash usually begins on the back and the chest. From there, the rash may spread to one’s face, including the inside of one’s mouth and nostrils. The outbreak then spreads over the body, in a typical case.
There are some anecdotal stories in which people have experienced very light cases of chickenpox and went on to have a much more pronounced case within a year or two. There is no clinical evidence to back this claim. The accepted standard is that those who have chickenpox have the condition only once, but the varicella zoster virus will live in the individual’s body for a lifetime.
Individuals who have had chickenpox once develop what is known as lifelong immunity to the virus after the initial exposure.
The Center for Disease Control states that some cases of chickenpox begin in the scalp rather than on the back or chest. The institution also says that chickenpox is usually mild in children, and those symptoms worsen in adults. There is anecdotal evidence that backs this theory as well.
What are the complications of chickenpox?
- Skin Infection
- Reye’s Syndrome
- Toxic Shock Syndrome
- Sepsis syndrome
Pneumonia is not a typical complication of chickenpox, but it is more likely to occur in adults who smoke. Small children can develop pneumonia a well.
Some individuals at any age with chickenpox may develop encephalitis, which is an infection of the brain or inflammation of the brain tissues.
Reye’s Syndrome, as we’ve addressed, can be prevented by not giving small children aspirin to treat the fever and fatigue associated with chickenpox. Additionally, Reye’s Syndrome can lead to cases of encephalitis.
Toxic Shock Syndrome
Toxic Shock Syndrome can arise from a case of chickenpox. However, good hygiene can also prevent this complication, at least to a degree. Children, especially with chickenpox, cannot keep from scratching the itchy sores characteristic of the condition. When those with chickenpox scratch the wounds and there are bacteria under the individual’s nails which contaminate the lesion, the possibility of toxic shock dramatically increases.
Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria often cause toxic Shock Syndrome. When a person scratches the sores, if they have this bacteria under their nails, the bacteria may travel into the bloodstream via the open blisters.
Some people get a disease or skin infection while they also have an outbreak of the chickenpox. One may need to go through a course of antibiotics if the chickenpox sores become infected.
Those who develop any form of bacterial infection will experience a high fever and redness as well as pain in the area of the affected sore.
Some children (and adults) who develop chickenpox may find that they scratch the sores until they bleed. Again, this will increase one’s chances of developing an infection of the chickenpox sores. Again, if the parent (or the adult fighting off a chickenpox infection) notices that the lesions are draining yellow fluid or pus or if it appears that redness is spreading between sores, then you might need to consult a physician.
Sepsis or sepsis syndrome often occurs when, once again, the patient scratches the sores and bacteria enter the bloodstream.
Preventing Complications Due to Scratching
The key to avoiding almost all the complications of chickenpox is keeping the patient from scratching the sores. This discomfort is tough for small children (and, let’s face it, for many adults as well).
With small children, at the first signs of chickenpox, parents should trim the child’s nails and wash their hands with soap. In fact, parents should encourage the child to wash their hands daily with this soap until the sores begin to scab over.
How Can I Soothe the Itchy Sores from Chickenpox?
Warm baths with oatmeal (gentle soaps with this natural ingredient are best) will go a long way in helping to soothe the itch associated with chickenpox. You’ll also want to keep Calamine lotion on hand. Slather this lotion on dry skin, as soon after the bath as possible. Re-apply when necessary.
Final Thoughts: Chickenpox Poses the Highest Degree of Complications in Babies and Pregnant Women
Babies under four weeks of age and pregnant women can develop chickenpox and have severe complications. The mother can pass the viral infection to her baby, and young babies are far more susceptible to developing an infection, pneumonia, or encephalitis when compared with other children.
Adults may have a more severe case of symptoms when it comes to chickenpox, but most otherwise, healthy adults will not experience complications.
Always monitor children of any age for high fever, redness around the sores, and any colored liquid that runs from the lesions.