Chickenpox is a viral infection that causes a rash with itchy, fluid-filled blisters to develop on the surface of your skin.
While it mostly affects children, chickenpox, also called varicella, can develop in anyone exposed to the varicella zoster virus who doesn’t already have immunity.
You can become immune to chickenpox by having the disease, or by getting vaccinated against it.
The standard treatment for chickenpox in children is simply watching and waiting for the disease to run its course, while taking proper home care measures to ease the itching and other symptoms. But in some cases, more proactive treatment is recommended.
If you or your child develops chickenpox, it’s important to watch for symptoms that could indicate a more severe case of the disease that requires medical intervention.
It’s also important to let your doctor know about any ongoing health conditions you or your child has, because taking antiviral medications may be recommended in certain cases.
Antiviral drugs are commonly given to adults and teenagers with chickenpox, because these groups tend to have more severe symptoms and are at greater risk for complications.
Even if medications aren’t recommended for your case of chickenpox, there are steps you can take to ensure that the disease causes as little discomfort as possible.
These steps are typically aimed at reducing itching and pain, lowering a fever if warranted, and ensuring that sores aren’t irritated so that they can heal as quickly as possible. (1,2)
Home Remedies for Chickenpox
There are many steps you can take to ease the discomfort associated with chickenpox and to ensure that healing takes place as effectively as possible.
First and foremost, don’t scratch chickenpox blisters or scabs. Scratching may cause scarring and slow the healing process, and it raises the risk of developing a secondary skin infection.
If your child is having trouble resisting the temptation to scratch, wearing gloves may help, especially at night. It may also be helpful to make sure your child’s fingernails are trimmed short. (1)
Several home-based treatments may reduce the itching, pain, and discomfort associated with chickenpox. These include:
Cool Compresses Applying a cloth soaked in cold water to particularly painful or itchy areas, and leaving it in place for a few minutes to an hour, may ease discomfort and reduce the temptation to scratch.
Cool Baths Taking a bath in cool water with added elements — such as baking soda, rolled or ground oats, or a commercial oatmeal bath product — can help ease the itching brought on by chickenpox.
Both wet compresses and cool baths may be most effective at relieving itching when they’re done every three to four hours for the first few days of chickenpox symptoms.
Calamine Lotion Applying dabs of calamine lotion to chickenpox blisters may reduce itching. Just be careful not to get it in your eyes.
Cold, Soft, Bland Foods Chickenpox sores in your mouth can be especially uncomfortable and make eating and drinking difficult.
You can minimize the discomfort with foods that aren’t too hot, are easy to chew and swallow, and don’t irritate the mouth. That means avoiding spicy, salty, and acidic foods.
Antihistamines These drugs, which include diphenhydramine (Benadryl), may be helpful when other measures to treat itching aren’t enough. Check with your doctor before giving an antihistamine to your child, and be sure not to exceed the recommended dose.
Pain Reliever Acetaminophen (Tylenol) may be used to treat a mild fever and reduce pain. It’s the only pain reliever that’s generally recommended for chickenpox. (1,2,3)
It’s very important not to take aspirin when you have chickenpox. Doing so can lead to a serious condition called Reye’s syndrome, which affects your brain and liver. Reye’s syndrome can be deadly in children. (4)
You also shouldn’t take any nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) when you have chickenpox without first talking to your doctor. There’s some evidence that doing so may encourage secondary infections or cause tissue damage. (1)
Over-the-counter NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve). If you take any prescription NSAIDs, such as celecoxib (Celebrex), talk about this with your doctor.
Steps to Avoid Infecting Others and Secondary Infections
Aside from any steps taken to ease discomfort, certain basic measures should be taken to help ensure your chickenpox resolves as well as it can.
Stay at home. Because chickenpox is so contagious, both adults and children with the disease should stay home from work or school until all blisters have broken and developed a crust.
Bathe regularly with soap and water. Keeping your skin clean reduces your risk of developing a secondary infection.
Be sure to pat, not rub, your skin dry after bathing to avoid irritation.
Wash your hands frequently. Keeping your hands clean reduces the risk that you’ll cause a secondary infection by touching or scratching your skin.
Get some rest. Especially if you have a fever or feel fatigued, take it easy while you have chickenpox. This can reduce stress on your body and help encourage healing. (1,2,3,4)
Antiviral Drugs for Chickenpox
The main group of medications that may be prescribed for chickenpox is antiviral drugs.
These drugs interfere with the action and development of viruses within the body. They don’t actively kill the target virus or resolve an infection on their own.
Antiviral drugs can reduce the severity and duration of chickenpox symptoms, as well as reduce the risk of complications. (1)
You or your child will be prescribed an antiviral drug only if you’re at higher risk for developing chickenpox complications.
You may be considered at higher risk if:
- You’re over age 12 or a newborn infant
- You’re a pregnant woman
- You have a skin disorder, such as eczema
- You have chronic lung disease
- You have a weakened immune system (due to a health condition or medical treatment)
Antiviral drugs are most effective when taken within 24 hours of the onset of chickenpox symptoms, so contact your doctor right away if any of these conditions applies to you. (2,5)
The following antiviral drugs may be prescribed for chickenpox:
Acyclovir (Zovirax) This is the main antiviral drug prescribed for chickenpox. It’s usually taken by mouth, but may be given intravenously (by IV) in people with severe complications.
While acyclovir may pose some risks to pregnant women, many experts believe that the risks of chickenpox during pregnancy are even greater — especially during the second and third trimesters.
Acyclovir isn’t recommended for children with uncomplicated chickenpox or a low risk for developing complications. (5)
Valacyclovir (Valtrex) and famciclovir (Famvir) Valacyclovir or famciclovir may be prescribed as an alternative to acyclovir, if your doctor deems it appropriate. (1)
Preventive Therapies for Chickenpox
If you’re at high risk for chickenpox complications and are exposed to the virus, and haven’t been vaccinated against it, it’s not too late to take action to prevent an infection.
Immune globulin (Privigen) is an IV drug that contains antibodies to several kinds of infections. It can help your immune system fight off a chickenpox infection or even prevent an infection from developing.
This drug may be given within 24 hours of the onset of chickenpox symptoms. In this case, the best hope is that it will reduce the severity of symptoms, rather than prevent the infection.
Varicella zoster immune globulin (Varizig)is an injected substance derived from human plasma that may prevent infection with chickenpox. It is approved for use within 10 days of exposure to chickenpox in people who are at high risk of complications but are not candidates for the varicella vaccine.
If you’re a healthy person who hasn’t been vaccinated against chickenpox and are exposed to the virus, you may still benefit from the varicella virus vaccine if it’s delivered within three to five days of your exposure.
While vaccination at this stage may not prevent an infection, it may reduce the severity of your symptoms. (1,2)