Chickenpox (Adult)

Chickenpox is a very contagious illness caused by a virus. Symptoms include fever and an itchy red rash of small blisters all over the body. Blisters may also appear in the mouth or vagina. New blisters will appear over the first few days. Chickenpox in adults can have more complications than in children. These include skin infection, pneumonia, hepatitis, infection of other parts of the body, and respiratory failure. In rare cases it can be fatal. Chickenpox is spread by touching the blisters or by breathing in virus particles. The contagious period ends when all blisters have crusted over. This is often about 1 week after the illness starts.

Most children older than 1 year and adults who have never had chickenpox should get vaccinated to prevent this illness.

The illness often goes away in a few days. But the virus that causes chickenpox stays in the body. Many years later, it can cause a new skin infection called shingles (also called herpes zoster). 

Home care

If you've been diagnosed with chickenpox, follow these guidelines when caring for yourself:

  • You may use acetaminophen or ibuprofen to control pain and fever, unless another medicine was prescribed. If you have chronic liver or kidney disease, talk with your healthcare provider before using these medicines. Also talk with your provider if you’ve had a stomach ulcer or gastrointestinal bleeding. Don’t give aspirin to anyone younger than age 19. It may cause severe liver damage.

  • Often adults may be treated with antiviral medicines. Take these medicines exactly as prescribed.

  • You can ease itching and pain by mixing cool water with cornstarch, baking soda, and commercial oatmeal bath powder. The oatmeal bath powder is available without a prescription. Use this mixture as a compress for the area. This will soothe the skin. Calamine or another anti-itch lotion may help.

  • Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine sold at grocery stores and pharmacies. You can use this medicine to ease itching over large areas of skin unless a prescription antihistamine was given. Use lower doses during the day and higher doses at bedtime. This is because the medicine may make you sleepy. Other antihistamines cause less drowsiness and are good choices for daytime use.

  • Bathe daily. Wash the rash with soap to stop infection.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised, if the above tips don’t help.

When to get medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have a weak immune system (for any reason) and have signs of chickenpox.

If you've been diagnosed with chickenpox, call your provider or get medical care right away if you have any of these:

  • Signs of skin infection. These include colored drainage from the sores, and sore redness or tenderness that gets worse.

  • Trouble breathing or coughing

  • Excessive vomiting

  • Severe headache, stiff neck, or confusion

  • Joint pain, redness, or swelling

  • Dark urine, or yellow skin or eyes

  • Leg weakness or trouble walking

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher that doesn’t get better with fever medicine 

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