Q: What is chickenpox, and how is it treated?
A: Chickenpox is a contagious virus that causes a well-known itchy, blistery rash, as well as symptoms like fever and coughing. It's most common in the late winter and early spring in children between 6 and 10 years, but anyone who is not vaccinated or has never had chickenpox can come down with it once they're exposed. Chickenpox used to be one of the most common childhood illnesses (about 4 million cases every year), but incidences have dropped by 90 percent since the chickenpox vaccine became widely used in the U.S. over the last decade.
The vaccine isn't 100 percent effective (about 10 to 30 percent of people vaccinated may still come down with the virus if they're exposed to it), but it does make the condition shorter and milder. If your kid is exposed to chickenpox, he may not show symptoms for two to three weeks, when the rash will first appear. Kids are usually contagious starting one to two days before the rash appears (before you may know they're sick) until about five days after it shows up.
There's no cure for chickenpox, although sometimes an anti-viral medicine can be used to shorten the duration of illness if it's caught early enough (within a day of the rash appearing). Beyond that, all you can do is help keep your child comfortable and wait for the virus to run its course:
• Give your child oatmeal baths to relieve itching.• Apply calamine lotion to the blisters.• Give acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce fever and alleviate the general achiness that often accompanies chickenpox. Remember never to give your child aspirin, which can cause a serious condition called Reye's syndrome in children and teenagers.• Encourage your kid not to scratch. Scratching can open the blisters before they're healed and leave your child vulnerable to infection. Scratching also increases the possibility of scarring.
Chickenpox can be very uncomfortable for kids, but the good news is that those who contract it usually develop immunity afterward. However, most doctors agree that getting the vaccine for chickenpox (and building immunity that way) is much safer than exposing your kid to the virus.