a glass vial containing the chicken pox disease: this vaccine prevents the symptoms of chicken pox
Chicken pox is a viral infection that causes an itchy, red rash to appear on the skin.

Chicken Pox Symptoms

Chicken pox is a contagious, viral skin infection characterized by a maddeningly itchy rash and numerous red blisters. The infection is so common that it’s a near inevitability, with over 90% of the global population contracting chicken pox at some point in their lives. Chicken pox can affect adults, but most often shows up in early childhood, and more than 80% of people are infected by the age of 10.

Chicken pox is generally mild in children and usually clears up within a week or two. However, the discomfort caused by the rash can make kids miserable. Scratching does little to alleviate the itch, but it does increase the risk of pockmark scarring and secondary bacterial skin infections.

Anti-itch treatments are, therefore, your first line of defense against chicken pox in children, and should be used as soon as the rash appears. Learning how to accurately identify chicken pox symptoms will help you to catch the condition earlier; understanding more about the infection is key for preventing it from spreading to others.

What Are the Symptoms of Chicken Pox?

Chicken pox symptoms usually show up 10–21 days after exposure to the virus. The infection is characterized by a very itchy rash with small blisters, which may appear anywhere on the body. The rash and blisters develop and dry out over a period of several days, going through three distinct stages in the meantime:

Stage 1: Appearance of Spots

The rash begins with small, red spots or bumps, which may appear anywhere on the body.

Stage 2: Formation of Blisters

The spots soon turn into fluid-filled blisters, which may burst and spread to other parts of the body. Most cases of chicken pox are mild, and some people will only develop a few blisters. However, the severity of the rash can vary significantly, and the worst-affected may have as many as 500.

Stage 3: Scabbing

The blisters will start to dry out and form crusts after approximately 5–7 days. At this point, the virus is no longer contagious. The crusts should fall away naturally within 10 days of symptoms first developing, and most people recover from chicken pox within 1–2 weeks.

The rash is the most identifiable sign of chicken pox, though the infection is often accompanied by other symptoms, which may begin a day or two before the rash appears. These include:

  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Aches, pains and generally feeling unwell
  • Nausea (less common)

What Causes Chicken Pox, and How Is It Spread?

Chicken pox is caused by a virus called the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). It is highly contagious and is easily transmitted from person-to-person. It can spread in several different ways:

Direct Contact

The chicken pox virus is present in the liquid inside blisters and the saliva of infected people. It is easily transmitted to others by touch, and people are often infected by direct contact with these fluids.

Through the Air

VZV can also be transmitted through the air, so you can catch chicken pox just by being in the same room as an infected person. The virus is released into the air whenever an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Handling Infected Items

Clothing, towels and other items handled by people with chicken pox can easily become contaminated with VZV. The virus often transfers to the next person that handles the object.

In the Womb

It is rare for people to contract chicken pox during pregnancy. In cases where pregnant people are infected, however, there is a small risk of serious complications.

Chicken pox starts to be contagious a day or two before the rash develops. After this, it can easily be spread to other people until the blisters have completely dried and crusted over.

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When Should You See a Doctor?

Chicken pox is usually mild in children; most of the time you can treat the symptoms at home using over-the-counter remedies and medications. However, you should take your child to see a doctor if:

  • Your child has a rash and you are not sure if it’s chicken pox.
  • Your child becomes dehydrated.
  • The rash becomes infected (in this case, the skin around the blisters will become inflamed, red, hot and painful).
  • You are concerned about your child’s condition.
  • Your child is very young (less than one year old) and has chicken pox.

Can Adults Get Chicken Pox?

Chicken pox almost exclusively affects young children, with over 80% of cases diagnosed before the age of 10. However, older children and adults can also be infected. Most people only get chicken pox once, after which they have lifelong immunity to the virus. In rare cases, however, a person may get it twice.

Chicken pox is often more serious in adults and is more likely to lead to complications, especially in pregnant people and those with weakened immune systems. If you contract chicken pox as an adult, you need to schedule an appointment with your doctor for a professional diagnosis and assessment. You should also seek medical advice if:

  • You are pregnant and have been exposed to someone with chicken pox.
  • You have a compromised immune system and have been exposed to someone with chicken pox.
  • You have a newborn baby.

How Can You Prevent the Spread of Chicken Pox at Home?

Chicken pox is so common that it’s almost impossible to prevent. Almost all children have had chicken pox by the time they turn 10 and, in the vast majority of cases, the infection is mild and passes without complications.

As most people only contact chicken pox once, there is little risk of adults getting it. However, it is highly contagious and will easily spread to other children who haven’t already had the infection; short of locking infected kids away in isolated rooms, there’s little you can do to stop it.

The only guaranteed way to prevent chicken pox is to get a vaccination, which is recommended for all children under the age of 13 who have not yet had the infection.

Treatment for Chicken Pox

In most cases, chicken pox clears up by itself within a week and doesn’t require a doctor’s visit. Home treatment should focus primarily on relieving discomfort, staying hydrated and preventing scratching during the healing process. If your child has chicken pox, take the following steps to help them deal with the infection:

  • Use pain-relief medications. Over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen (paracetamol) can help to relieve discomfort. Don’t use ibuprofen unless advised to by a doctor, as this can increase the risk of serious skin infections.
  • Apply cooling creams. Cooling creams and gels can be found in your local pharmacy and may help to soothe pain and itching.
  • Try to prevent scratching. Cut your child’s fingernails and put socks or mittens over their hands at night to help prevent scratching. Use anti-itch remedies during the day and discourage the behavior when you see it.
  • Stay hydrated. It’s important to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. If your child refuses to drink, ice lollies are also an effective way to keep them hydrated.
  • Dress appropriately. Dress your child in loose clothing to keep skin irritation to a minimum.


Chicken pox is a childhood rite of passage for most people, and one that usually passes without complications. Though maddeningly itchy, chicken pox infections are usually mild in children and clear up without the need for medical intervention.

You should see a doctor if you are an adult with chicken pox symptoms (especially if you are pregnant or immunocompromised). Children will only need to see a doctor if they become dehydrated, their rash becomes infected, they are under the age of one, or if you are especially concerned by their condition.