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  • The Facts About Chickenpox and Adults

    Published: 01/29/2013

    Want the facts about adults and Chickenpox?

    We asked Dr. Steven Sivak, MD, Chair of Medicine here at Einstein, for the truth.

    Dr. Sivak: Ninety percent of the people who get chickenpox get it before age 13. I have never seen a case in anyone over the age of 60. In medical literature, only a handful of cases are reported among people older than 60. When we were in training, we'd come across a condition in the hospital and ask how common is this condition? The doctors would say you'll see references to it on the first part of the board exams, the second part of the boards and the third part of the boards. Chickenpox occurring in someone in their 80s doesn't even make the boards. That's how unusual it is.

    Q: What causes chickenpox and can it be more severe in adults?

    Dr. Sivak: The varicella-zoster virus causes chickenpox. Symptoms include a blister-type rash, itching, fever and fatigue. It can be more severe in infants and adults. We worry about pneumonia developing in adults because the virus appears to affect the lungs. Antivirals can help treat the pneumonia. There can be other complications in adults, like brain infections, but they're rare.

    Q; How does chickenpox differ from shingles, which is an adults' disease?

    Dr. Sivak: Once you are infected with varicella it remains in your body. Shingles is caused by a re-activation of the virus; it is characterized by a severe burning sensation and often appears as a rash on one part of the body. If you have never had chickenpox, avoid someone with shingles. It could be that Barbara was exposed to someone with shingles. As we get older the immune system tends to be less effective, but she's obviously very healthy otherwise.

    Q: What's the best way to prevent chickenpox?

    Dr. Sivak: Get the chickenpox vaccine when you're young. It wasn't made available until 1995, so that wasn't an option for her. Most people who get the vaccine do not get chickenpox, and if they do, it's mild. Adults who do not think they've had chickenpox can certainly talk to their physicians about getting the vaccine, but a doctor would first check to see if an adult has been exposed to the virus in the past. It could be they had a mild form. We assume anyone 50 plus has had chickenpox.

    Q: Can an adult shingles vaccine protect someone who hasn't had chickenpox from getting chickenpox?

    Dr. Sivak: The shingles vaccine might help prevent chickenpox in an older adult, but we don't really know. We assume that anyone older than 50 has had chickenpox. That's one reason why we recommend the shingles vaccine for anyone who is older than 60.

    Q: What is the treatment for chickenpox?

    Dr. Sivak: Treatment may include acyclovir, an antiviral drug that can decrease the severity of the infection. Ibuprophen and antihistamine products can ease pain and itchiness. You can also rub an anti-itch lotion, such as one that contains zinc oxide, to relieve irritated blisters. A warm bath several times a day can soothe the rash. Put two ounces of baking soda or oatmeal in the tub to help with itching.

    Follow-up with your physician

    Adults can experience complications from chickenpox so it’s important to be closely monitored by your physician. Seek emergency medical attention if you develop a high fever, stiff neck, severe headache, have difficulty breathing or develop a bad cough. 

  • Communications Team