Varicella (aka chicken pox)

Gretchen Pfeiffer

What is varicella?

Chicken pox is a virus that often affects children. It is characterized by itchy, red blisters that appear all over the body. It was once very common and considered a rite of childhood passage, but when the vaccine was introduced in the 1990s, cases began declining.


A rash is the most common symptom of the chicken pox. However, you will be contagious a few days before the rash develops and will experience other symptoms such as fever, headache, and/or loss or appetite. After two days of experiencing those symptoms, the rash will begin to develop. The rash goes through three stages before you fully recover from the virus. First, you develop red or pink bumps all over your body. Second, the bumps fill with fluid that leak. Finally, the bumps scab over and began healing. You are contagious until all of the bumps have been scabbed over.


The varicella-zoster virus causes the chickenpox infection. The virus may be contagious many days before the blisters appear and still contagious until all of the blisters have scabbed over. It is spread through saliva, coughing, sneezing, and most commonly in contact with another person with blisters.

T cells are the immune cells that are involved in helping someone recover from the chickenpox.

How does the chickenpox virus replicate?

The chickenpox virus replicates through the lysogenic cycle (it is latent). It is asymptomatic during the first 10-21 days because no blisters are forming, but the virus is still in you and contagious during the last 2 days of the incubation period. The varicella virus enters the body through the nose, mouth, broken skin, eyelids, and eyeballs. It attaches to host cells around the nose and starts replicating like crazy. It then travels to the liver, spleen, and sensory nerve tissues and replicates there. It enters the lytic cycle when bumps on the skin start to form and ooze out fluid. Eventually the blisters scab over and the virus reenters the lysogenic cycle. It is very unlikely for someone to get the chickenpox again, but if you have had it in your childhood, you run the risk of getting shingles when you are older, where the chickenpox virus enters the lytic cycle again and displays even worse symptoms.
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You should check with your doctor before doing anything to treat chickenpox and you should always try to reduce itching. Antihistamine medications or topical ointments may be prescribed or purchased over the counter to relieve itching. You can also soothe itching by taking lukewarm baths, applying unscented lotions, or wearing lightweight, soft clothing. Antiviral drugs may be prescribed to those who experience complications from the virus, or who are at risk for adverse effects. High-risk patients are usually young, elderly, or have underlying medical issues. These antiviral drugs do not cure chickenpox. Instead, they make the symptoms less severe, and make your body more likely to heal faster.


The best way to prevent yourself from getting the chickenpox virus is to get the vaccine as a child. The vaccine is recommended for all healthy children aged 12 months or older who have never had the chickenpox, healthy people who haven't had the vaccine or don't think they've had the chickenpox, and women who aren't pregnant but are planning on getting pregnant. Pregnancy and chickenpox are known to be a dangerous combination. You can also keep away from people who have the virus to prevent yourself from getting it, which is mainly how it spreads.

Photomicrograph of the Chickenpox Virus

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