Of the get-once-and-get-it-over-with childhood diseases, chicken pox is at the same time one of the most innocuous and most annoying. It rarely results in any serious harm or complication, but while It's there--oh, can life be miserable!

With the growing availability of a chicken pox vaccine, is it necessary to make children go through this? It's obviously a decision parents have to make for themselves, but to me, It's definitely worth the discomfort, both to kids and mom! Here's some general information about the disease, its treatment, and the vaccine to help you get through!

What is chicken pox?
Varicella, or chicken pox, is caused by a herpes virus. There are six known strains of chicken pox; in most cases, acquiring one results in an immunity to all strains of the virus. In rare cases, however, a complete immunity is not imparted by the first infection, and an individual can become re-infected. This is extremely unusual, however, and almost always only occurs in immuno-compromised subjects.

There is a secondary infection caused by the chicken pox virus. Called shingles or herpes zoster, this is a later reactivation of latent virus, and can occur at any time after the initial infection. Usually, it occurs many years later, and is activated by stress or an immune system unbalance (caused by an immunosuppressing medication, immune system compromising illnesses, or cancer treatment).

Because it can travel by air, chicken pox is highly contagious. More cases seem to occur during late winter and early spring than any other time of year, and almost all cases occur in children under age twelve. It is best to get chicken pox before puberty starts, as the potential complications are greater for adults and teens than they are for younger children.
The incubation period for chicken pox is fourteen to twenty-one days, and it is contagious from two days before the first spots are noticed to the time that all spots have crusted over. This usually occurs seven to ten days after the first spots appear.

How will I recognize chicken pox?

The first symptom your child has may be spots. In many cases, however, there is a fever and/or sore throat for a few days before the first spots appear. The fever usually is around 101, but can go as high as 105. The fever may break when the spots appear, or last until they all are gone.

Chicken pox spots, or lesions, start out looking very like pimples--small, red bumps. The first are likely to appear on the stomach and chest; after that, they spread everywhere quite quickly. After several hours or a day, they begin to look a bit infected--they appear pus-filled (which they are). These pustules will burst after about 12 hours, and begin to crust over.

The most telling symptom, beyond the lesions, is the itching which almost always accompanies chicken pox. Other symptoms may include loss of appetite, achiness, or irritability (hey, you'd be irritable too if your whole body itched!).

While the number of spots may be frightening, especially when they show up everywhere, there are few places where they may be truly dangerous. Call a doctor if any of the lesions become infected (oozing yellow pus rather than white/clear), or if spots appear in any of the following locations:

What should I do if my child breaks out?
As a courtesy, alert anyone with whom your child has had contact in the past few days. It's always nice to have some advance warning that your child is about to be ill for a week or two.

In most cases, it is not necessary to see a doctor for chicken pox. In fact, many doctors will specifically ask you NOT to bring your child to their office, for fear of infecting everyone there. Check with your own doctor, of course, especially now that the chicken pox vaccine or proof of immunity is being required by many schools (see below for more information).

Oats in the bath are a traditional remedy that really does work

Because chicken pox is viral in nature, there is little that can be done other than waiting it out and making your child as comfortable as possible. To relieve itching, calamine can be applied, or, with a doctor's approval, an antihistamine given. The most effective treatment, at least in my experience, is oatmeal and ginger baths.
It's not necessary to purchase an expensive boxed oatmeal bath packet. Simple rolled oats work equally well, at a fraction of the cost. Place a cup or two of oats in an old stocking. Add some ground ginger, and tie off the end of the stocking. Toss this into the bath with your child--show her that squeezing the stocking will result in clouds of oatmeal in the water. Use it to scrub (gently), and don't rinse off any oatmeal coating that remains after the bath.

Explaining that it is best not to scratch is important--in addition to the potential of leaving scars, scratching increases the risk of the lesions becoming infected. Older children are more likely to understand and stop scratching. If explanations don't help, however, it may be necessary to have your child wear mittens, especially at night. Keeping nails clipped will also help.

For the accompanying fever and sore throat, standard over-the-counter medicines may help. Popsicles may help soothe sore throats, and will also help get some much-needed liquid into your child. If any lesions appear in the mouth, be sure to watch out for acidic foods and drinks--orange juice, for all its appeal to a child, may simply be too painful to swallow.

What about the vaccine?
Given all the unpleasantness of chicken pox--the itching, the quarantine, the general discomfort--is it really necessary? There is a vaccine available, after all. Obviously this is a decision that each parent has to make herself, but consider the following:

The vaccine has been widely available in the United States for less than five years. Its long-term effectiveness is unclear; in fact, Varivax (the vaccine) is stated to have an estimated effectiveness of six to ten years. A child vaccinated before going to school would therefore face the potential of getting chicken pox again when she reaches puberty, the most dangerous time to get it.
In contrast, a naturally acquired immunity is almost always lifelong. The vaccine has numerous additives, and can make your child ill. Is it worth this illness to get a questionable immunity?
Approximately 3% of children receiving the vaccine contract chicken pox from the vaccine. The potential secondary infections (pneumonia, bacterial infections, etc.) are far more rare than side effects from the vaccine.

There is certainly a time and place for the vaccine, but it is not necessarily needed at the early age at which it is now being recommended (12 months old). If your child has not had chicken pox by age 12, the vaccine is probably a good idea. Before getting the vaccine, however, be sure to have a chicken pox titer done--this simple blood test will establish whether your child has an immunity (whether natural or acquired) to the disease.

Many schools are requiring the varicella vaccine for admission. This requirement can be side-stepped either by proof of immunity (a titer test result, or statement from your doctor that your child has had chicken pox), or by signing a waiver stating that you do not wish your child to receive this vaccine.

Chicken pox is a part of childhood, and one which, while temporarily uncomfortable, seldom cause lasting problems. So grab some oatmeal, pull out a few good books, and spend a couple of quiet weeks at home with your itchy child!

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Don't forget--Articles and resources in the Healthy Living section should NOT be substituted for good medical advice! Consult your practitioner before doing anything!