Understanding Chickenpox

Chickenpox is a highly-contagious disease caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV).  It spreads from person to person by direct contact or by air from an infected person’s coughing and sneezing. 

Its noticeable red sores usually begin on the mucus membranes on the head such as the conjunctiva between 10 to 20 days after the infection before spreading all over the body, mainly on the head and torso.  Although the sores are itchy, they mostly heal without scarring the skin.

What is chickenpox?

It is unknown when chickenpox began, but an Italian physician named Giovanni Filippo was credited as the first to describe the "varicella" disease in the 1500s. 

In the 1600s, Richard Morton of England described what he though was a mild form of smallpox as "chicken pox." 

In 1767, another English physician named William Heberden was the first to clearly demonstrate the difference between smallpox and chicken pox.

How the disease became known as "chickenpox" is still subject to debate.  Some say Samuel Johnson, an English writer in the 1700s, suggested that the disease was "less dangerous," thus a "chicken" version of the pox; while others claim that it is called such because the sores appear as if the skin was pecked by chickens. 

The term chickenpox also seems to reflect a corruption of an Old English word "giccin," which meant "itching."

Symptoms of chickenpox

Chickenpox is noticeable because of its small red lesions appearing all over a patient’s body.  These lesions are bumpy, itchy, and contain fluid. 

The difference between chickenpox and the more fatal smallpox is that the concentration of the lesions on the former are located on the head and torso; compared to smallpox where majority of the sores can be found on the arms and legs of a patient.

How to treat chickenpox?

Antiviral treatment is greatly advised for patients suffering from chickenpox, along with maintenance of good hygiene, and cleaning the body daily with warm water to avoid further bacterial infection. 

People with weakened immune systems, who are pregnant, or newborns infected with chickenpox should be administered with anti-varicella zoster immunoglobin before the onset of symptoms.  There is no evidence that topical applications of calamine lotion could cure chickenpox, but it may lessen the itching.