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What are the Different Methods of Chickenpox Transmission?

Chickenpox spreads in various ways, primarily through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, releasing tiny droplets. Direct contact with the rash can also transmit the virus, as can touching contaminated items. Pregnant mothers may pass it to their unborn child. Understanding transmission is key to prevention—how might this knowledge change your approach to staying healthy?
A. Pasbjerg
A. Pasbjerg

There are several different ways that chickenpox, which is highly contagious, can be transmitted from one person to another. One of the most common methods of chickenpox transmission is physical contact with a person who is infected and actively contagious. The virus can also be spread through the air when a sick person coughs or sneezes, as it is present in saliva. Sometimes children who receive the chickenpox vaccine may develop a mild case of the disease. In rare cases, people with shingles can cause a chickenpox infection in someone who comes in contact with them.

Infection with chickenpox causes patients to develop fluid-filled blisters over much of their skin. Coming into contact with this fluid is a common cause of chickenpox transmission. This may occur if one person touches the actual blisters when they break open, or it may happen if they handle such things as bedding or towels which the infected person has used. People caring for those who are infected should use caution when they are touching the patient or his or her belongings to avoid infection.

A boy with chickenpox.
A boy with chickenpox.

Saliva or mucous from the respiratory tract can also be the source of chickenpox transmission. If a patient coughs or sneezes while he or she is actively contagious, the virus can travel through the air and be breathed in by another person, spreading the infection. Sick people who do not adequately wash their hands may also leave the virus on surfaces where it can be picked up by others. This is particularly problematic in places such as schools where children, who are typically the ones that catch chickenpox, are often in close proximity to each other.

A girl with chickenpox.
A girl with chickenpox.

One method that can help stop chickenpox transmission is vaccination against the varicella-zoster virus that causes it; in some cases, however, the vaccine can cause a mild chickenpox infection. Children in these cases typically display far fewer and less severe symptoms than in full-blown cases of the disease, and they usually recover much faster. They still are contagious, though, and therefore need to be careful about spreading it further.

Shingles can transmit the chickenpox virus.
Shingles can transmit the chickenpox virus.

After being infected with chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus usually stays in the body and can become active later in life as shingles. This condition causes a painful rash that can potentially transmit the virus. Though it is uncommon, a person who comes in physical contact with this rash may develop a case of chickenpox.

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Discussion Comments


The accepted wisdom in the family is I got chickenpox from my cousin. She must have contracted a particularly virulent version because I had a truly nasty case of it.

I had pustules from the crown of my head to the tops of my feet -- literally. No exaggeration. I had places in my ears, nose, throat -- everywhere. It was awful. I have never been so miserable in my life.

I was out of school for about a week. I was so sick I couldn't even enjoy being out. My first grade teacher was a real witch about it, too. You shouldn't teach first grade if you're not prepared to deal with stuff like chickenpox.


Oh yes, chickenpox is extremely contagious. In the dark ages, before there was a vaccine for it, when one kid in the first grade got it, all the kids who hadn't already had it would all get it within about a month or so.

When I was in first grade, one mom sent her son to school with an active case. We all said she couldn't see the pustules because he had so many freckles. That might not have been too far from the truth...

Anyway, that was late March. By the first of May, 10 kids in my first grade class, including me, had gotten the chickenpox.

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    • A boy with chickenpox.
      By: Dan Race
      A boy with chickenpox.
    • A girl with chickenpox.
      By: Arpad Nagy-Bagoly
      A girl with chickenpox.
    • Shingles can transmit the chickenpox virus.
      By: librakv
      Shingles can transmit the chickenpox virus.
    • Chickenpox can be spread through the cough or sneeze of an infected person.
      By: leungchopan
      Chickenpox can be spread through the cough or sneeze of an infected person.