Chickenpox, also known as varicella, was once a common viral childhood disease. The causative agent of chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus, is a member of the herpesvirus family. In children, the disease is mild and self-limiting, and is easily transmitted by direct contact or inhalation of material from the skin lesions. In adults, however, chickenpox infections can be much more severe and can lead to pneumonia and birth defects in the case of infected pregnant women. Reye syndrome is also a serious complication associated with chickenpox, generally in children.
Once infected, most individuals acquire a lifetime immunity to future chickenpox outbreaks. For this reason, parents once held “chickenpox parties” for their children. At these events, uninfected children were intentionally exposed to an infected individual so they would contract the disease earlier in life, when the incidence of complications is very low, rather than risk a more severe infection later.
After the initial viral exposure, chickenpox has an incubation period of about 2 weeks. The initial infection of the respiratory tract leads to viremia and eventually produces fever and chills. A pustular rash then develops on the face, progresses to the trunk, and then the extremities, although most form on the trunk. Eventually, the lesions burst and form a crusty scab. Individuals with chickenpox are infectious from about 2 days before the outbreak of the rash until all the lesions have scabbed over.
Like other herpesviruses, the varicella-zoster virus can become dormant in nerve cells. While the pustular vesicles are developing, the virus moves along sensory nerves to the dorsal ganglia in the spinal cord. Once there, the varicella-zoster virus can remain latent for decades. These dormant viruses may be reactivated later in life by a variety of stimuli, including stress, aging, and immunosuppression. Once reactivated, the virus moves along sensory nerves to the skin of the face or trunk. This results in the production of the painful lesions in a condition known as shingles. These symptoms generally last for 2–6 weeks, and may recur more than once. Postherpetic neuralgia, pain signals sent from damaged nerves long after the other symptoms have subsided, is also possible. In addition, the virus can spread to other organs in immunocompromised individuals. A person with shingles lesions can transmit the virus to a nonimmune contact, and the newly infected individual would develop chickenpox as the primary infection. Shingles cannot be transmitted from one person to another.
The primary diagnosis of chickenpox in children is mainly based on the presentation of a pustular rash of the trunk. Serological and PCR-based tests are available to confirm the initial diagnosis. Treatment for chickenpox infections in children is usually not required. In patients with shingles, acyclovir treatment can often reduce the severity and length of symptoms, and diminish the risk of postherpetic neuralgia. An effective vaccine is now available for chickenpox. A vaccine is also available for adults older than 60 years who were infected with chickenpox in their youth. This vaccine reduces the likelihood of a shingles outbreak by boosting the immune defenses that are keeping the latent infection in check and preventing reactivation.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology