Chickenpox in Adults and Teenagers

chicken pox adults

Chickenpox is an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. The immune system makes antibodies during the infection. These fight the virus and then provide lifelong immunity. Therefore, it is rare to have more than one bout of chickenpox in a lifetime.

Most people have chickenpox as a child. About 9 in 10 people have had it by the age of 15. It is uncommon for adults to have chickenpox.

What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

  • Fever, aches and headache often start a day or so before a rash appears.
  • Rash. Spots appear in crops. The spots develop into small blisters and are itchy. They can be anywhere on the body and sometimes also in the mouth. Several crops may develop over several days. Some people are covered in spots; others have only a few.
  • Cough, sore throat, and feeling sick are common.
  • The blisters gradually dry up and scab. They slowly fade over a week or so, but may take 2-3 weeks to go completely. A dry cough may persist for a while after all the other symptoms have gone.

What is the treatment for chickenpox?

  • Having plenty to drink.
  • Taking paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease fever, headaches, and aches and pains.
  • Soothing creams may ease itching. Calamine lotion used to be used.
  • Antihistamine tablets taken at bedtime may help you to sleep if itch is a problem at night.
  • Antiviral medication

Antiviral drugs such as aciclovir can limit the severity of chickenpox. These drugs do not kill the virus, but stop the virus from multiplying. Adults with chickenpox may be advised to take an antiviral drug - but only if the drug can be started within 24 hours of the rash first developing. If it is started after this time it is not likely to have much of an effect. Antiviral medication is especially useful in situations where chickenpox can be more serious. For example, for people who have a poor immune system, newborn babies, and for pregnant women.

Are there any complications?

The spots do not usually scar unless they are badly scratched.In some cases, some spots become infected with bacteria. If this occurs, the surrounding skin becomes red and sore. Antibiotics may then be needed.

Inflammation of the lung (pneumonia) is a rare complication.
Inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) is a very rare complication.

See a doctor if you develop any worrying symptoms that you are unsure about such as:

  • Breathing problems.
  • Weakness.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Convulsions.
  • Being unable to take fluids due to a severe rash in the mouth.
  • A very severe rash or a rash which bruises or bleeds into the skin ('haemorrhagic rash').
  • Becoming generally more and more unwell.

In general, complications are uncommon. However, some people have a higher risk of developing complications from chickenpox. Anyone in the following groups should see a doctor urgently if they have symptoms of chickenpox:

  • Pregnant women.
  • People with a poor immune system.
  • People with heart or lung disease.
  • People with severe skin conditions.
  • Very young babies


Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox and so is like a complication of chickenpox. Shingles is an infection of a nerve and the area of skin supplied by the nerve. It causes a rash and pain in a band-like local area along the affected nerve.

The reason why shingles may occur is because the virus does not completely go after you have chickenpox. Some virus particles remain inactive in the nerve roots next to your spinal cord. They do no harm there, and cause no symptoms. For reasons that are not clear, the virus may begin to multiply again (reactivate). This is often years later. The reactivated virus travels along the nerve to the skin to cause shingles.

Chickenpox and pregnancy

If you are pregnant and have not had chickenpox (or been immunised) and come into contact with a person with chickenpox - see your doctor urgently. Chickenpox can be more serious if you develop chickenpox whilst pregnant. However, a treatment with a product called immunoglobulin may prevent chickenpox from developing.

Is chickenpox infectious?

A person with chickenpox is very infectious. The virus spreads in the air from person to person. For example, if you have not already had chickenpox, you stand a good chance of catching it if:

  • You are in the same room as someone with chickenpox for more than 15 minutes; or
  • You have any face-to-face contact with someone with chickenpox, such as a conversation.
  • It takes between 7 and 21 days (most commonly 10-14 days) to develop symptoms after catching the virus (the incubation period).

Protecting others

A person with chickenpox is infectious from two days before the rash first appears until all the spots have crusted over (commonly about five days after the onset of the illness). You can usually return to work after this time if you feel well enough

Is there a vaccine against chickenpox?

Yes, there is an effective vaccine that protects against the virus that causes chickenpox. It has become part of the routine childhood immunisation programme in certain countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia.

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