UT University Health Services

Chickenpox (Varicella)

If you don't have symptoms and have never had or been vaccinated for varicella, please consider obtaining a vaccine from a local pharmacy or call the UHS Allergy, Immunization, and Travel Clinic at (512) 475-8301 to schedule an appointment for a varicella vaccine Monday – Friday between 8:00-5:00. According to the CDC, studies indicate that the varicella vaccine is 70% to 100% effective in preventing illness or modifying the severity of illness if used within 3 days, and possibly up to 5 days, after exposure.

Overview and Symptoms

Chickenpox is a contagious viral infection that spreads easily from person to person through the air and by physical contact. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is a type of herpes viruses.

The best known symptom of chickenpox is a red, itchy rash. It breaks out on the face, scalp, chest and back and can spread across the entire body. The rash begins as superficial spots. These develop into small, liquid-filled blisters that break and then crust over. Spots continue to appear for several days and may number in the hundreds. Itching ranges from mild to intense.

Photos of people with chickenpox

The following may precede or accompany the rash:

  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain and/or loss of appetite
  • Mild headache
  • A general feeling of discomfort or irritability
  • Mild cough and runny nose for about two days before the rash appears

Potential Complications

Chickenpox is usually mild, but can be more serious in teenagers and adults than it is in children. Complications are rare, but can include bacterial skin infections as well as more serious conditions such as pneumonia and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).

Let your healthcare provider know if any of the following occur:

  • Your rash gets very red, warm to the touch, or tender. These are signs of a potential bacterial infection of your skin.
  • Your rash spreads to your eyes.
  • You experience:
    • dizziness
    • disorientation
    • rapid heartbeat
    • tremors
    • loss of coordination
    • a worsening cough
    • shortness of breath
    • vomiting
    • stiff neck
    • fever over 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius)

Varicella (Chickenpox) Vaccine

The varicella vaccine is recommended if you haven't had chickenpox and haven't received two doses of the vaccine. Be aware that older immunization guidelines recommended only one dose of the vaccine. However, guidelines issued in June of 2005 changed varicella vaccine recommendations to two doses for best protection. A second "booster" shot is recommended for those who've only received one dose. Many college-age individuals fall into the group for which a booster is recommended.

To get the vaccine at UHS, call (512) 471-4955 to schedule an appointment. Charges apply.

Transmission and Duration

You can transmit the virus from about 48 hours before the rash occurs until the last lesions have dried and crusted over - usually three to five days after the rash appears.

Most people have scabs on all lesions and are safe to return to school, work, and other activities within a week of the onset of the rash.


If the illness is caught early, a medication can be prescribed to reduce the severity and duration of the rash. Even without medication, the illness simply runs its course.


Get plenty of rest.

For fever:

  • Take acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) or ibuprofen (e.g. Advil, Motrin). Follow package instructions unless your healthcare provider tells you otherwise.
  • Don't take aspirin. Doing so can lead to Reye's Syndrome, a serious condition.

For itching:

  • Take cool (but comfortable) baths.
  • For added relief, put baking soda or a colloidal oatmeal product (e.g. Aveeno Bath) in your bath water. Colloidal oatmeal IS NOT a food product. CAUTION: These products can make your bathtub slippery.
  • Dab calamine lotion on your lesions.
  • Don't scratch! It can slow healing, increase the risk of infection, and cause scarring.

For lesions in the mouth:

  • Eat soft, bland foods.

To speak with a nurse about questions or for more information about self-care for chickenpox, call the UHS UHS Nurse Advice Line at (512) 475-6877 (NURS).

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