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by Tash Hughes of Word Constructions

Everybody has heard of Chicken Pox, and many have seen the scars at some point. But do you really know what chicken pox is?

By the way, chicken pox has absolutely nothing to do with chickens. The name is based on the Latin word cicer, meaning chickpeas, as the blisters were thought to resemble chickpeas on the skin!

Chicken pox is a viral infection caused by Varicella-Zoster Virus (VZV.) This virus is part of the Herpes virus family and is not affected by antibiotics (as these only attack bacteria.)

Generally speaking, Chicken pox is a mild infection that causes little concern. However, it can have some serious complications, especially for certain groups of people. It is most common in children between 5 and 9 years of age, although all ages are susceptible to it.

What is Chicken Pox?

The most telling symptom of chicken pox is an itchy red rash starting on the face and torso. Crops of blisters appear for 2 to 4 days, gradually spreading over the entire body, including the scalp, penis and inside the mouth, ears, nose and vagina.

Each blister is about 5 -10 mm across and has a red base to it. After a few days, the blister will crust over and appear brown with the scab eventually falling off. Some people have only a few blisters whilst others get hundreds of them.

A fever is common, whilst some people also develop mild abdominal pain and a sense of being unwell. The severity of the disease tends to be worse with age; adults are sicker and more uncomfortable than children, and it tends to take longer for adults to recover.

Unfortunately, the patient is contagious for two days before the rash is visible so the disease is easily spread before the patient is aware of being ill. Patients are excluded from school and work for about one week, until all the blisters have dried and formed scabs.

Some other facts about chicken pox:

  • Incubation of 7 – 21 days, with 14 – 17 days the most common.

This means that the disease will show about 14 days after exposure to the virus.

  • The disease lasts for 7 – 10 days in children
  • Chicken pox is highly contagious.

About 90% of non-immune people will develop it once exposed.

  • A vaccine is available
  • Spread via the fluids of the nose and the actual blisters
  • Having had chicken pox, the person is then immune for life
  • Many people who don’t recall having had chicken pox are still immune – some have ‘silent infections’
  • After recovery, the virus lies dormant and may develop later into the shingles

Is there any treatment?

There is no medication or cure for chicken pox in the general population.

Treatment is usually symptomatic; that is, treatment is aimed at reducing the itchiness and temptation of scratching. Some means of reducing this are:

o       Applying a wet compress

o       Frequent cool/lukewarm baths

o       Having an oatmeal bath (add oatmeal or a commercial preparation)

o       Only pat blisters dry – don’t rub or the blisters will break

o       Apply calamine lotion

o       Keep finger nails very short

o       For very young children, consider mittens or socks over their hands to prevent scratching, especially in their sleep

o       Anaesthetic creams are available if need be – speak to a pharmacist if the genital areas in particular are painful

Eating and drinking are not pleasant when the mouth is full of blisters, either. A mild pain relief mixture may be used, as well as only having soft, bland foods and cold fluids. Acidic foods and drinks, such as orange juice and tomatoes, should be avoided, as should salty foods as both aggravate the sores.

Generally, a Doctor is not required for chicken pox, other than confirmation of the diagnosis. The exceptions are when complications are suspected, the fever reaches 39.4oC and when the blisters are infected. Infected blisters are red, swollen and painful or will be leaking pus; secondary infections may require antibiotic treatment.

NOTE: Do NOT administer aspirin to anyone under the age of twenty during an attack of chicken pox, and other viral infections. Doing so increases the risk of Reye’s Syndrome, which can be fatal.

Who needs to worry about chicken pox?

Chicken pox is generally a mild disease, although it is much worse in adults. However, there are exceptions to this and they need to be taken very seriously.

Chicken pox is potentially deadly for children with leukaemia and immune deficiency diseases.  Children on steroids (eg for asthma or poison ivy) are also at greater risk of complications.

About 10% of infected adults will develop the very serious Chicken Pox Pneumonia, which can be life threatening. Anybody with chicken pox who develops a fever with rapid breathing, a dry cough, chest pain or has any difficulty breathing needs medical attention promptly as these are potentially signs of pneumonia.

Women planning to get pregnant should have their immunity tested if they are not sure about having chicken pox previously. Some medical people believe that the pregnant woman is at more risk of complications, although this is disputed by other Doctors.

What is not disputed, however, is the risk to an unborn child if the Mother develops chicken pox in the first half of the pregnancy or around the time of delivery. Chicken pox in early pregnancy can lead to birth defects such as limb deformities, scarring, eye problems, muscle and bone defects, blindness, mental retardation, seizures, an undersized head or, rarely, cause a miscarriage. Late pregnancy chicken pox makes for very ill newborns, with 30% of them dying if untreated.


 Chicken pox immunity is developed either through having the disease or the vaccination. The only other means of reducing the risk of catching it is the avoidance of people with or recently exposed to chicken pox.

 When near someone with chicken pox, such as nursing your child, ensure that all tissues are carefully disposed of and hands washed thoroughly after each one. Do not touch the blisters if at all avoidable – note that the virus can't be caught via water, so baths are perfectly safe to share.

 People in high risk groups who have been exposed to the virus can be treated with VZIG (Varicella Zoster Immune Globulin) which will prevent the disease starting or keep it mild. This does not give immunity though, and only protects for about three weeks.


Tash Hughes is the owner of Word Constructions and assists businesses in preparing all written documentation and web site content. Tash also writes parenting and business articles for inclusion in newsletter and web sites.



© 2003, Tash Hughes

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