Risk factors and complications associated with chickenpox

Risk factors and complications associated with chickenpox

Who is at greater risk of getting a chickenpox infection?

Any person who has not been exposed to the chickenpox virus is vulnerable to contracting it. Risk increases in the following ways:

  • A person is exposed to an infected individual who is contagious
  • A person is younger than 12 years of age (children under the age of 2 are at most risk with 90% of cases occurring in young children)
  • A person is an adult who lives with children
  • A person spends time in childcare facilities or schools
  • A person has not been vaccinated against the virus
  • A person has a weakened or impaired immune system (child or adult) due to use of medications or the effects of an existing illness or medical condition.

Risk-reducing factors include:

  • Exposure to the chickenpox virus through a previous infection
  • Exposure to the chickenpox virus through vaccination
  • Immunity passed from mother to her new-born baby (which lasts approximately 3 months after birth)

Chickenpox complications

Although the majority of chickenpox cases develop mild symptoms, an infection can be severe, sometimes resulting in warning signs that will require prompt medical assistance.

If a person experiences a rash or blisters that spread to one or both eyes, is warm and tender at the site of a rash (this could indicate a bacterial infection, as well as chickenpox) or experiences shortness of breath or dizziness, medical attention must be sought out as soon as possible for prompt treatment.

At high risk for complications are:

  • Infants (young children under the age of 2), especially those whose mothers have never been vaccinated against the virus or had chickenpox themselves.
  • Pregnant women who have never had chickenpox (and are at risk of giving birth to a new-born with a small head size, growth problems, intellectual disabilities and eye issues).
  • Individuals with weakened or impaired immune systems (especially those who suffer infections of the skin, have arthritis, cancer - or are being treated with chemotherapy, HIV or transient synovitis – an acute hip pain, or who have had an organ transplant).
  • Adults (An adult can get chickenpox for a second time as the VZV virus can remain in the nerve cells for years and become active again. This can also lead to another infection, known as shingles.)
  • Seniors or elderly people
  • Individuals who are taking steroid medications for a medical condition, such as asthma, or who are taking medication that suppress the immune system.

When severe, complications of chickenpox can include:

  • Bacterial infections (affecting the skin, bones, joints, soft bodily tissues or bloodstream)
  • Pneumonia
  • Dehydration
  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or cerebellar ataxia
  • Bleeding problems and blood stream infections (sepsis)
  • Toxic shock syndrome
  • Reye’s syndrome

Many severe infection cases will require hospitalisation, and in extreme instances can result in death. It is important to have all cases of suspected chickenpox infections diagnosed and treated by a medical professional, and the utmost care taken to ensure that transmission and spreading is hindered while infected.

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