Diagnosis

Doctors generally diagnose chickenpox based on the telltale rash.

If there's any doubt about the diagnosis, chickenpox can be confirmed with laboratory tests, including blood tests or a culture of lesion samples.

Treatment

In otherwise healthy children, chickenpox typically requires no medical treatment. Your doctor may prescribe an antihistamine to relieve itching. But for the most part, the disease is allowed to run its course.

If you're at high risk of complications

For people who have a high risk of complications from chickenpox, doctors sometimes prescribe medications to shorten the duration of the infection and to help reduce the risk of complications.

If you or your child falls into a high-risk group, your doctor may suggest an antiviral drug such as acyclovir (Zovirax) or another drug called immune globulin intravenous (Privigen). These medications may lessen the severity of the disease when given within 24 hours after the rash first appears.

Other antiviral drugs, such as valacyclovir (Valtrex) and famciclovir (Famvir), also may lessen the severity of the disease, but may not be approved or appropriate for all cases. In some instances, your doctor may recommend getting the chickenpox vaccine after exposure to the virus. This can prevent the disease or lessen its severity.

Don't give anyone with chickenpox — child or adult — any medicine containing aspirin because this combination has been associated with a condition called Reye's syndrome.

Treating complications

If complications do develop, your doctor will determine the appropriate treatment. Treatment for skin infections and pneumonia may be with antibiotics. Treatment for encephalitis is usually with antiviral drugs. Hospitalization may be necessary.

Lifestyle and home remedies

To help ease the symptoms of an uncomplicated case of chickenpox, follow these self-care measures.

Don't scratch

Scratching can cause scarring, slow healing and increase the risk that the sores will become infected. If your child can't stop scratching:

  • Put gloves on his or her hands, especially at night
  • Trim his or her fingernails

Relieve the itch and other symptoms

The chickenpox rash can be very itchy, and broken vesicles sometimes sting. These discomforts, along with fever, headache and fatigue, can make anyone miserable. For relief, try:

  • A cool bath with added baking soda, uncooked oatmeal or colloidal oatmeal — a finely ground oatmeal that is made for soaking.
  • Calamine lotion dabbed on the spots.
  • A soft, bland diet if chickenpox sores develop in the mouth.
  • Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl, others) for itching. Check with your doctor to make sure your child can safely take antihistamines.
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, Children's Motrin, others) for a mild fever.

Don't give aspirin to anyone with chickenpox because it can lead to a serious condition called Reye's syndrome. And don't treat a high fever without consulting your doctor.

Preparing for your appointment

Call your family doctor if you or your child has signs and symptoms common to chickenpox. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

Information to gather in advance

  • Pre-appointment restrictions. Ask if there are any restrictions you or your child should follow, such as staying isolated so as not to spread infection, in the time leading up to the appointment.
  • Symptom history. Write down any symptoms you or your child has had, and for how long.
  • Recent exposure to possible sources of infection. Try to remember if you or your child has been exposed to anyone who might have had chickenpox in the last few weeks.
  • Key medical information. Include any other health problems and the names of any medications you or your child is taking.
  • Questions to ask your doctor. Write down your questions so that you can make the most of your time with your doctor.

Questions to ask your doctor about chickenpox include:

  • What is the most likely cause of these signs and symptoms?
  • Are there any other possible causes?
  • What treatment do you recommend?
  • How soon before symptoms improve?
  • Are there home remedies or self-care steps that could help relieve symptoms?
  • Am I or is my child contagious? For how long?
  • How do we reduce the risk of infecting others?

Don't hesitate to ask any other questions.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor may ask:

  • What signs and symptoms have you noticed, and when did they first appear?
  • Has anyone else you know had signs and symptoms common to chickenpox within the last few weeks?
  • Have you had or has your child had a chickenpox vaccine? How many doses?
  • Are you or is your child being treated or have you recently been treated for other medical conditions?
  • What medications are you or your child currently taking, including prescription and over-the-counter drugs, vitamins and supplements?
  • Is your child in school or child care?
  • Are you pregnant or breast-feeding?

What you can do in the meantime

While you wait for your appointment, you may be able to reduce fever with ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, Children's Motrin, others) and acetaminophen (Tylenol, others). Anyone recovering from chickenpox shouldn't take aspirin. This is because aspirin has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition, in people recovering from chickenpox.

Rest as much as possible, and avoid contact with others. Chickenpox is highly contagious until skin lesions have fully crusted.