Friday, January 6, 2006

Apple #139: Chickenpox

(By the way, I initially got the idea for this entry on the 6th and made a draft of this entry, which is why this gets filed under the 6th, but today is really the 9th.)

The other day, several articles were released that discussed the finding that cerebral palsy is probably due to the fetus's exposure to viruses while still in the womb, not because of anything anybody did or didn't do during delivery. One article I read said that the viruses especially found to be corrrelated with cerebral palsy were "herpes viruses, including the chicken-pox virus." I didn't know that chickenpox was a kind of herpesvirus.

  • The herpesvirus family actually includes over 100 viruses, eight of which cause diseases in humans. As you can see from the list below, these are not things to fool around with.
  • The eight human herpesviruses are:
    • herpes simplex 1, which causes cold sores
    • herpes simplex 1, which causes genital herpes infections
    • cytomegalovirus, which resembles mononucleosis with a bit of hepatitis thrown in
    • Epstein-Barr, which causes infectious mononucleosis
    • herpesvirus 6 and 7, which are both associated with a form of measles called roseola
    • herpesvirus 8, which causes Kaposi sarcoma, or the skin malignancy which affects people with AIDS
    • varicella-zoster, which causes chickenpox and shingles
  • Before vaccines were developed for chickenpox, 100 people died each year from chickenpox, and about 11,000 people had to be hospitalized. Fortunately, the now widely available vaccines have rendered chickenpox probably the least harmful form of the herpesviruses. It is important to point out, however, that vaccines don't keep everyone from getting the disease, and while they do keep most cases of chickenpox from getting too severe, some people do still die from the disease each year, so please take it seriously.
  • Chickenpox most commonly infects children and teens under 15, but it can infect adults, too.
  • The reason most people get it when they're children is because it is highly infectious. You can get it if someone coughs or sneezes near you -- you don't even have to touch the person -- or you can get it if you come in contact with the fluid inside the chickenpox blisters.
  • If you haven't had it before, chances are about 80% to 90% that you will get it if you spend a fair amount of time around someone who has chickenpox. If you've had it already and you're exposed to the virus, you won't get the disease again.
  • However it is possible, if you've had chickenpox as a child, that later in life you may get shingles. The varicella-zoster virus lurks near your spinal cord even after the chickenpox is gone. Then if something reactivates the virus, it becomes shingles, and you get tingling or pain or itching on your skin, as well as the red bumps or blisters. About 10% to 20% of people who had chickenpox get shingles. Shingles is not contagious.
  • If you or your child does contract the chickenpox, it can bring a fever, usually around 100 to 102, as well as the blisters. Most cases of chickenpox are relatively mild and last for about a week. If the fever rises over 102 degrees, if the sick person develops a severe headache or vomiting, or has trouble waking up or looking at bright lights, it is time to call the doctor for sure.
  • Things to make sure you don't do around chickenpox:
    • If you're pregnant, don't go near anyone who has chickenpox. Make sure to keep your distance until after the sick person's blisters have crusted over.
    • Don't treat chickenpox with antibiotics. Chickenpox is a viral infection, not a bacterial thing, so antibiotics will have absolutely no effect, except to reduce the efficacy of antibiotics in the long run. An antiviral drug, acyclovir, may help, but do not give this drug to children under 12 due to its serious side effects.
    • Never give aspirin to anyone who has chickenpox. It can cause serious liver problems and nasty diseases. If you must use a pain reliever, use acetominophen (Tylenol) instead.
    • Bathing in cool, lukewarm water, or oatmeal baths, does help. However, do not rub skin dry after the bath. Pat the skin only, otherwise you may tear open the blisters, which makes them itch more, and also makes it easier for the disease to spread.
    • Don't send your child to school if he or she has chickenpox. Keep your youngster home with you until all the blisters have dried, which takes about a week.
    • And if you're an adult and you have chickenpox, please in the name of any consideration for even just one other person you work with, don't go to work sick!
One last note: the disease is called "chicken pox" not for anything to do with chickens, although the exact reason for the name is in dispute. Some say it's because the spots look like chick peas, and others say it's because the British called children "chickens," the way we call children "kids" (young goats) today.

Forbes, "Exposure to viruses in womb contributes to cerebral palsy, not doctors' delivery procedures," 1/5/06, Definition of Herpesvirus
CDC, National Immunization Program, Varicella Disease (Chickenpox)
Kidshealth, Infections, Chickenpox (varicella)

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