Chicken Pox and the Herpes Virus
One of the most common childhood diseases is actually a strain of the herpes virus. The technical name for chicken pox is Varicella Zoster, and is also known as human herpes virus 3, or HHV-3. The virus causes two types of infections. It is most often contracted at a young age. Shingles mostly affects people over the age of 50 who had chicken pox as children. The risk of shingles increases with age.
HHV-3 is highly contagious and can be contracted even if the blisters haven’t appeared yet. It is also airborne and can be passed along through coughs and sneezes. After the being infected, it can take up to three weeks for the blisters to develop. After a week, all of the blisters have completely formed. The sores are red and mostly form on the face and body, but can appear almost anywhere.
It takes up to two weeks for the blisters to scab over. At this point, they are no longer considered contagious. The blisters can be quite itchy, but scratching should be avoided to prevent scars from forming. Antihistamines can be used to ease the itching, as well as bathing in oatmeal or baking soda. Also like other herpes infections, HHV-3 can be accompanied by fever and flu-like symptoms. The virus is not dangerous to otherwise healthy children. Once the body has been infected once, it can suppress it and therefore, once you have had chicken pox, you don’t get it again. This is different from genital and oral herpes where the virus lays dormant in the nervous system and periodically breaks out.
If chicken pox is contracted in adulthood, the symptoms are often more severe that if contracted in childhood. Complications can include serious skin infections or pneumonia. Pregnant women should avoid exposure to chicken pox if they have never had it or been vaccinated. The virus can cross the placenta and possibly cause brain or organ damage.
A vaccine for chicken pox has been available since 1995 and is now part of routine vaccination schedules. Adults who have never been infected would benefit from having the vaccine since as mentioned above, complications in adulthood can be very severe.