In general, chickenpox is a mild illness. The vast majority of infected individuals stay out of school or work for about seven to ten days with annoying symptoms such as fever and itching. However, chickenpox tends to be worse in adolescents and adults, as well as in individuals with a weakened immune system, who have a higher risk of complications such as encephalitis and pneumonia. Even healthy individuals can develop secondary skin infections from scratching at the chickenpox lesions and allowing bacteria under the skin.
Another group of people who have an increased risk of complications are pregnant women and their newborn babies. There is a slight risk of birth defects for women who develop chickenpox in the first half of pregnancy. Even worse, there is increased risk of neonatal death if the mother develops chickenpox within a week of delivery.
Cases of death related to chickenpox are rare. Before the vaccine was regularly administered, millions of children developed the disease in the United States every year, and around ten thousand people were hospitalized, but only 150 people died of complications. Even though most of the cases of chickenpox occurred in children, most of the deaths were in adults because they had a more severe case of the disease. Since the vaccine, the number of cases of chickenpox and the number of hospitalizations and deaths have declined. This is an example of decreasing the complications and deaths from a disease by making the disease less common in the community.
There are antiviral treatments for chickenpox, but they are usually only recommended for individuals at higher risk of complications, such as pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems. These medicines should be started within seventy two hours of the first skin lesion. In addition, if a high-risk person has been exposed, he or she can receive the vaccine (if not previously immunized) or varicella-zoster immune globulin (VZIG), a compound that contains antibodies to the virus that might prevent the disease from taking hold.