The first thing that springs to mind when you think of chicken pox is children, and you’d be right to think that as the virus mainly affects their health. But unfortunately, that doesn’t mean adults are immune.
In fact, if anything, adults get chicken pox far worse than children do, which is why it’s even more important to know how to spot the signs and what to do if you think you might be at risk.
What is chicken pox?
According to the NHS, the virus causes a rash of red, itchy spots which turn into fluid-filled blisters. Eventually the spots crust over to form scabs, which then eventually drop off.
Dr Paul Zollinger-Read, CMO at Bupa comments: “Chicken pox is caused by the varicella zoster virus. It’s most common in children under the age of 10, but anyone at any age can get it.”
While it’s inevitable that children will catch chicken pox at some point in their youth, the virus can be more severe in adults, with a higher risk of developing complications such as pneumonia. People with impaired immunity such as smokers and pregnant women also have an increased risk of contracting the virus.
Robert Glatter wrote for Forbes: “Chicken pox is quite common in children, but not often seen in older persons – essentially because most people have already had chicken pox by the time they reach adulthood. Once you have had chicken pox, you develop immunity to contracting it.”
Good news for those who’ve already had chicken pox as a child, not so great for those who haven’t.
How does chicken pox spread?
Unfortunately, chicken pox spreads like wildfire once it’s out in the open. Dr Zollinger-Read reports: “It’s extremely infectious. Nine out of 10 people who come in to contact with someone with chicken pox will get it too.
“It’s spread through droplets in the air and direct contact with a person who’s got it. The infection can be in your system for between one to three weeks before you start to show any symptoms.”
Dr Nitin Shori, medical director of the Pharmacy2U Online Doctor service and a working NHS GP, adds: “The virus can contaminate bedding, toys, and other surfaces too, so extra cleaning and hygiene is important.”
What are the symptoms?
The main symptom, which everyone knows about, is a blistering skin rash across the body. Dr Paul Zollinger-Read adds: “To begin with, you’ll feel generally unwell and have a fever for one to two days.
“Then spots will start appearing. They appear first on your face and scalp before spreading to your chest and abdomen, and then to your arms and legs. Sometimes though, you might not have many spots at all.
“You’re infectious for one to two days before the rash appears and until the spots have scabbed over. This is often five to six days after the illness starts.”
Thankfully, after three to four days of itchiness, the spots will dry up. At this stage, Dr Zollinger-Read notes that “it’s really important not to scratch them so you aren’t left with scars”.
Obviously, this is easier said than done, but to help you can do the following:
:: Keep your nails short to reduce damage from scratching the spots.
:: Wear smooth cotton fabrics that won’t add to the irritation of your skin.
:: To ease the itching, apply calamine lotion with cotton wool to the spots.
If you develop any abnormal symptoms including infected blisters or feel really unwell, then you should speak to your GP immediately.
Treatment for the virus
The advice for anyone who thinks they might have chicken pox? Stay off work until all of the spots have crusted over and ensure that you keep away from pregnant women and people with a poor immune system.
To help recover from a bout of chicken pox (which actually derives from the herpes virus), it’s really important to prevent dehydration by drinking lots. And because you may have a fever, dress appropriately to prevent shivering or overheating.
Dr Paul Zollinger-Read suggests taking paracetamol to ease symptoms. He adds: “Depending on your symptoms and situation, self-help measures might not be enough and you might need some medicines. Your GP will advise you.”
People are advised against taking NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, to relieve symptoms of chicken pox, as there is an increased risk of severe skin and soft tissue infections or reactions.
Complications with adult chicken pox
According to information published by BUPA, healthy people can develop other problems from having chickenpox. For example, your rash or spots could become infected, which might delay the healing process and could leave you with scars.
Meanwhile, the most frequent and dangerous complication of chickenpox is pneumonitis (inflammation of your lung tissue), which smokers are particularly susceptible to. Sometimes, although it’s rare, chickenpox can cause encephalitis (inflammation of your brain) or pneumonia, which is an infection in your lungs.
Dr Nitin Shori from the NHS mentions that those at higher risk of developing complications from chickenpox, such as pregnant women, can be prescribed an “antiviral medicine called Aciclovir”.
Will you get chickenpox again?
If you are an adult and you do get chicken pox, there may be a risk of the varicella zoster virus flaring up later in life, but in the form of shingles. This condition can be very painful and cause a tingling, prickling or burning sensation on your skin.
Dr Paul Zollinger-Reads says: “Seek medical advice if you’re very unwell and have any of these symptoms. Usually, once you’ve had chicken pox, you won’t get it again.”
- Update: This article has been amended to clarify that people should not take NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, to relieve symptoms of chicken pox.