What Does Chickenpox Look Like?

It's not always as easy to spot as you may think. These are the telltale signs.
chicken pox

Most parents know that the classic symptom of chickenpox is a red and itchy rash, but would you recognize it if you saw it? Maybe not. Before the vaccine for chickenpox was introduced in the United States in 1995, the disease was extremely common. These days, incidences of chickenpox have dropped so dramatically that some young doctors may have never seen a case of chickenpox firsthand, says Mary Anne Jackson, M.D., division director, infectious diseases at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Missouri, and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on infectious disease. If there are doctors who haven't seen the disease, there are plenty of parents who haven't either. Here are some clues that your child's rash is likely chickenpox:

  • The red bumps that first appear change in appearance. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a chickenpox rash will go through these five stages over the course of 24 hours:
    1. Small red bumps
    2. Thin-walled water blisters
    3. Cloudy blisters
    4. Open sores
    5. Dry brown crusts

  • New bumps keep popping up for four to five days. Since new spots continue to appear for several days, you can expect to see all five stages -- from small red bumps to crusty brown spots -- represented at the same time.
  • A chickenpox rash usually starts on the face, chest, and back before spreading to the rest of the body. The rash can even appear inside the mouth, eyelids, and genital area.
  • In all, a person can have 200 to 500 chickenpox blisters. "Some 'bad' cases could have as many as 1,000," notes Dr. Jackson.
  • If your child has been vaccinated but develops a handful of blisters, it might still be chickenpox. There's a small chance that people who are vaccinated can still get the disease but their symptoms are usually milder. These are called breakthrough cases, and tend to consist of fewer than 50 blisters. In some cases, only a few blisters pop up.
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