Is It Dangerous for Adults to Get Chicken Pox?

Chickenpox is typically considered to be a childhood disease, and everyone who hears that word may start involuntarily itching themselves as they recall their experiences with it. However, is it possible for adults to get chickenpox, or are you in the clear once you are no longer in your childhood years?

Not only is it possible for adults to get chickenpox, but in some cases, adults with chickenpox experience more severe symptoms. In addition, adults that fall into specific categories, such as those who are immunocompromised or pregnant, are at a higher risk of complications.

Why is Chickenpox Worse for Adults?

Chickenpox in adults often resembles the same infection that children get, but in some cases, it can be more severe.

Adults who are at an increased risk of experiencing a more severe infection include:

  • pregnant women who have not had chickenpox
  • those with an impaired immune system, such as those with HIV
  • people who are on immune system suppression medication, such as chemotherapy
  • those with a weakened immune system from an organ or bone marrow transplant
  • individuals who use steroid medications for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis

These individuals are at a higher risk because they are more likely to develop complications with a chickenpox infection.

These complications can include:

  • dehydration
  • bacterial infections of the skin, soft tissues, and/or bones
  • bacterial infection of the bloodstream (sepsis)
  • pneumonia
  • bleeding problems
  • inflammation of the brain
  • toxic shock syndrome
  • Reye’s syndrome

If a pregnant woman becomes infected by chickenpox, they and their unborn child are at risk of:

  • low birth weight
  • pneumonia
  • life-threatening infection
  • birth defects

How Can Adults Get Chickenpox?

Once you get chickenpox, you often develop an immunity to it, so you don’t get it again. So, those who get chickenpox as a child are unlikely to get it as adults. This is why many people may think that adults cannot get chickenpox, since in most cases people get it as children and then have this immunity to it. However, those who never had chickenpox as children are susceptible to it, no matter the age. 

What Does Chickenpox Look Like in Adults?

Chickenpox is most recognizable by its rash of itchy, red blisters that appear all over the body. 

Causes of Chickenpox in Adults

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). One of the primary risk factors of getting chickenpox as an adult includes not having had them as a child and not having the chickenpox vaccine.

Additional risk factors include:

  • living with unvaccinated children under the age of 12
  • spending more than 15 minutes in a room with someone who has chickenpox
  • working in a school or childcare facility
  • touching the rash of someone with chickenpox or shingles
  • touching something recently used by someone with chickenpox, including bedding or clothing

Symptoms of Chickenpox in Adults

Starting one to three weeks after exposure to the virus, you may develop symptoms such as:

  • Flu-like symptoms: these include fatigue, fever, body aches, loss of appetite, and a headache. These symptoms are often the first to appear.
  • Rash: following the flu-like symptoms, a rash appears on the face and chest first before spreading to the entire body. The red spots eventually develop into very itchy fluid-filled blisters.
  • Blisters: The blisters weep and become sores. As they heal, they form crusts. When these crusts appear, it’s not uncommon for more red spots to appear and the process to repeat itself. One person will often develop anywhere from 250 to 500 blisters across their body. 

Chickenpox Treatment for Adults

Since chickenpox results from a viral infection, treatment involves allowing the infection to run its course while treating the symptoms. This can include calamine lotion and colloidal oatmeal baths to help find some relief from the itching, or a pain reliever to reduce a fever. 

Chickenpox Medications for Adults

In some instances, especially in adults at an increased risk of complications, a doctor may prescribe antiviral medication such as acyclovir or valacyclovir to fight the virus and prevent any risky situations. 

Chickenpox Vaccine for Adults

While most people who get the chickenpox vaccine receive it as a child, it is also available for adults. It is a two-dose vaccine with an effectiveness rate of 94% for your entire life. Adults who have not had chickenpox will receive two doses spaced one month apart. 

However, a doctor may advise against this vaccine if you fall into any of the below categories:

  • plan to become pregnant in the next 30 days
  • have a moderate or severe illness
  • have undergone radiation or chemotherapy for cancer
  • have an allergy to any ingredient in the vaccine, or if you had a serious allergic reaction to a previous dose of the vaccine
  • have a disease that compromises your immune system
  • have been taking steroid drugs
  • have recently received a blood transfusion

How Contagious is Chickenpox for Adults?

Chickenpox is highly contagious and transmits easily. It spreads by breathing in the air that an infected person exhales, sneezes, or coughs. It’s also possible to contract chickenpox by coming into contact with the fluid within the rash blisters that those with chickenpox develop. 

How Long Does Chickenpox Last for Adults?

Adults often stop developing new red spots after a week. Between 10-14 days, the blisters scab over, and you are no longer contagious. 

Can Adults Get Chickenpox Twice?

Once you get chickenpox, the virus never leaves your body entirely. The varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox resides permanently in your nerve cells, and it can lie dormant for years. Because of this, those who have had chickenpox are typically immune from reinfection. 

That being said, it is possible to get chickenpox twice, but it is very uncommon. Those who are more susceptible to a second infection include:

  • those who had their first case of chickenpox when less than 6 months old
  • the first case was very mild
  • those with a weakened immune system

In addition, it’s possible that someone who believes that they have chickenpox for the second time was actually misdiagnosed the first time. Misdiagnosis can occur because some rashes can look like chickenpox. 

What Can Be Mistaken for Chickenpox?

Chickenpox can look similar to rashes from conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, ringworm, and measles, which may lead to misdiagnosis.

Shingles is a viral infection that results from VSV (from a previous chickenpox infection) becoming active again. With shingles, a blistering skin rash forms in a band in a specific area of the body, whereas chickenpox starts in the face and chest before infecting the entire body. Shingles most often appears on one side of the torso, around one eye, or on one side of the face or neck. Older adults and individuals with weakened immune systems are most at risk of shingles, and there are two shingles vaccines available which many doctors recommend for individuals older than 50 that have had chickenpox at some point in their life. 

When to See a Doctor?

If you think that you have chickenpox and the symptoms are highly uncomfortable, reach out to a doctor for advice on managing the symptoms, especially if you have never had chickenpox before and are unvaccinated. If you fall into any of the high-risk categories, including being pregnant or immunocompromised, and you believe you have chickenpox, reach out to a doctor immediately so that they can determine the best course of action to minimize any complications. 

In addition, see a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • fever above 102°F
  • fever that lasts longer than 4 days
  • difficulty walking
  • frequent vomiting
  • a part of the rash or area of the body becomes very warm, red, or tender, or begins leaking pus
  • difficulty breathing
  • difficulty waking up
  • severe abdominal pain
  • severe cough
  • stiff neck
  • rash with bleeding or bruising

Get Help from an Online Doctor

An online doctor is an excellent source to receive advice on medication that can be taken to relieve the symptoms of chickenpox. If you are considering the chickenpox vaccine, an online doctor, such as those at DrHouse, can also provide information on the vaccine and determine if you would be a good fit for it. 

Key Takeaways

Chickenpox is a highly contagious viral infection that can be spread through physical contact or by breathing in viral particles exhaled, sneezed, or coughed out by an infected individual. Even though it is a disease commonly associated with children, adults can also get it, and in some cases, the symptoms are more severe in adults.

Certain individuals, including pregnant women and those immunocompromised, are at risk of complications with a chickenpox infection. Treatment typically consists of symptom management, but doctors may prescribe these high-risk individuals antiviral medication to kill the virus and prevent complications. 

It’s uncommon to contract chickenpox twice, but those who have already had chickenpox may develop shingles. Other rashes can also mimic chickenpox, resulting in a misdiagnosis. The chickenpox vaccine is available to adults and requires two doses spaced one month apart. An online doctor is an excellent resource to determine your eligibility for this vaccine.

Sources

DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.

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