Chickenpox has broken out in a school in Penobscot County. Anyone who’s had the disease remembers stifling the urge to scratch those itchy little blisters, but what else is there to know about chickenpox?

  • It’s very contagious. Caused by the varicella-zoster virus, chickenpox primarily spreads through the air by coughing or sneezing. Touching chickenpox blisters can also lead to infection. A person with chickenpox can spread the disease from one to two days before developing the rash until all his or her chickenpox blisters have scabbed over. The vast majority of children recover from the illness.
  • It can be dangerous. While most of us recall chickenpox as a childhood annoyance, babies, adults, and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for complications. The lesions can open up the body to potentially serious secondary infections, Dr. Colette Sabbagh, a pediatrician with Eastern Maine Medical Center, explained. Complications are uncommon but can prove serious, including brain swelling and infection of the blood, bones and joints. Before the vaccine was licensed in 1995, about 11,000 kids wound up in the hospital from it each year, and about 100 to 150 Americans died from it, though most had underlying health problems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Vaccination has greatly reduced deaths. Deaths from chickenpox have plunged 97 percent in teens and children since the vaccine became available, according to a 2011 CDC study. The immunization involves an initial shot at 12 months of age, followed by a booster dose at 18 months. “I’ve never seen a kid with both shots get a definitive case of chickenpox,” Sabbagh said.
  • Vaccination lessens symptoms. Some people vaccinated against chickenpox can still get the disease, but the symptoms are usually milder, Sabbagh said. An unimmunized person typically gets 300 blisters, while those who have had one or both shots develops 10 to 20, she said. If your child isn’t immunized and you know they’ve been exposed to chickenpox, get the vaccine anyway, Sabbagh suggested. Studies have shown there’s still a benefit if the vaccine is administered during the incubation period for the disease, which lasts 14 to 21 days, she said.
  • Blisters aren’t the only symptom. The hallmark symptom of chickenpox is the rash, which may first appear on the face, chest and back before spreading to the rest of the body. But chickenpox also causes fatigue, fever, headache and loss of appetite.
  • Don’t use aspirin to relieve the fever. Using aspirin or products containing aspirin in children with chickenpox has been associated with Reye’s syndrome, a rare but severe disease that can cause sudden and dangerous swelling of the brain and liver.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...