Chicken pox, also known as the varicella-zoster virus, is a highly contagious and fairly common illness characterized initially by flu-like symptoms for 2-3 days that include fatigue, mild headaches, fevers, chills and muscle and joint pain, after which a itchy red rash and itchy red bumps appear. Typically all symptoms disappear after two weeks.Babies, adults and people with weakened immune systems tend to have longer-lasting and potentially more severe symptoms such as pneumonia and inflammation of the brain. Children usually experience milder infections and can recover faster than adults and babies. Once the varicella-zoster virus enters the body, it never leaves. Instead, it becomes dormant within the roots of the body’s nerve cells. This dormancy can often result in in developing shingles, a painful skin rash, later in life. Shingles is just as contagious as chicken pox, and can pass on the virus to those who are not immune in the form of shingles OR chicken pox.
Chicken pox poses several health risks to unborn babies, especially if the mother becomes infected between 13 and 20 weeks’ gestation. Particularly at this time, babies are at risk of being infected with CVS (congenital varicella syndrome) if the baby’s mother has the varicella-zoster virus. CVS in babies can result in vision problems, various birth defects (most often skin scarring), seizures, physical or mental developmental disabilities, malformed limbs and an abnormally small head. Finally, CVS increases the risk of miscarriage and fetal death during the latter parts of a pregnancy.
Approximately five days after a pregnant mother becomes infected with chicken pox, her body begins producing antibodies that are then passed onto unborn babies through the placenta, preventing them from becoming infected. That is why it is particularly risky if pregnant women develop chicken pox within five days of giving birth or approximately two days after giving birth, as the mother’s body does not have enough time to produce the antibodies the baby needs to remain protected from the virus. Because of this, babies are at risk of developing neonatal varicella (newborn chicken pox) after they are born, which can be a serious detriment and possibly life-threatening consequences for newborn babies. Thankfully, newborns are usually given a shot of varicella zoster immune globulin (VZIG) shortly after birth if it is known that the mother is infected at the time of the baby’s birth. Additionally, if newborn babies show any signs of infection at all they are intravenously treated with antibiotics immediately.