Signs, Symptoms, and Complications of Chickenpox

Symptoms of chickenpox include rash, fever, swollen lymph nodes, abdominal pain, and others. The classic chickenpox rash is red and itchy. It occurs suddenly on the face, scalp, chest, back, and, to a lesser extent, arms and legs. Spots quickly fill with fluid, break open, and turn crusty.

The incubation period—meaning the time between exposure and the appearance of chickenpox symptoms—is between 10 to 21 days, with an average of 14 days.

While children under 10 are most commonly affected by chickenpox (varicella-zoster virus, or VZV), older children and adults can get it if not previously exposed.

This article describes the frequent and rare symptoms of chickenpox, including potentially serious complications affecting the brain, nerves, skin, or lungs.

chickenpox symptoms
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Frequent Symptoms of Chickenpox

Healthy people who become sick after being exposed to the varicella-zoster virus will develop a cluster of symptoms typical of any viral infection in addition to the telltale chickenpox rash.

In some people, particularly adults, the non-rash symptoms will appear before the rash does. In kids, the rash is often the first sign of chickenpox.

Non-Rash Symptoms

Most non-rash symptoms last for a day or two, then disappear as the rash develops. These are often non-specific and easily mistaken for things like flu.

Common non-rash symptoms include:

  • Fever (usually mild, around 102 degrees, although it can go as high as 105)
  • Malaise (a general feeling of unwellness)
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Mild abdominal pain 
  • Swollen lymph nodes

A person infected with VZV can be contagious during the first couple of days preceding the outbreak of the chickenpox rash.

Stay at Home

If you come down with chickenpox, you'll need to stay home from school, work, and other activities to avoid spreading the virus. This is true even if you're feeling fine otherwise.

Chickenpox Rash

The chickenpox rash usually appears first on the torso, scalp, and face, and then spreads to the arms and legs.

The rash is extremely itchy, but it's important not to scratch. Scratching can lead to infection and leave behind an unsightly scar.

The number of spots a person with chickenpox gets can vary. The typical range is between 100 and 300. Adults and older kids usually develop more than younger children.

Each one starts as a 2- to 4-millimeter red bump (papule) with an irregular border. Within a short period of time, the papule fills with highly-contagious fluid and develops a characteristic "dewdrop" appearance. 

Chicken Pox
 Alex Tihonovs / EyeEm / Getty Images 

After eight to 12 hours, the fluid becomes cloudy and the tiny blister-like bumps (vesicles) erupt, leaving behind a crusty deposit that usually falls off after seven days.

Crusting and Contagiousness

Once crusting has occurred, the chickenpox rash is no longer contagious. However, as old lesions crust over and fall away, new ones continue to form. Because of this, you are considered contagious until all lesions have healed and no new ones have appeared.

Less Common Symptoms of Chickenpox

Less commonly, the chickenpox rash can cause lesions on mucous membranes in the eyes, mouth, and vagina.

On rare occasions, children who have been partially vaccinated or even fully vaccinated can come down with chickenpox anyway. This is referred to as breakthrough chickenpox.

The symptoms of breakthrough chickenpox tend to be milder and can easily be mistaken for bug bites or other common rashes.

The symptoms of breakthrough chickenpox include:

  • Fewer than 50 rashes
  • Few or no vesicles (meaning there is less chance of infecting others)
  • Low or no fever
  • Quick recovery (often within three to five days)

Complications of Chickenpox

For people who are in good health, chickenpox is unlikely to lead to any serious issues. However, around 14,000 people are hospitalized in the United States each year as a result of chickenpox complications. For around 100 of them, chickenpox can be fatal.

Chickenpox complications can include bacterial infections that enter the skin due to scratching, neurological disorders, pneumonia, and shingles.

As many as a third of adults who get chickenpox are at risk of serious complications, especially people 65 and over and those with compromised immune systems.

Bacterial Infection

The most common complication of chickenpox is a secondary bacterial infection caused by Staphylococcus aureus or Streptococcus pyogenes. Secondary infections occur when bacteria enter the body through broken skin caused by a primary infection.

With chickenpox, this can lead to secondary infections such as:

These infections are mostly superficial and easily treated with antibiotics. However, there is a risk that the bacteria can spread into the bloodstream, leading to a severe condition called bacteremia.

People with bacteremia are at risk of bacterial pneumonia, as well as other potentially serious infections like meningitis and sepsis.

Neurologic Complications

The second most common set of complications of chickenpox involves the nervous system. One of the more serious neurological disorders is a childhood condition called acute cerebellar ataxia.

Symptoms include fever, irritability, difficulty walking, and speech impairment, which can persist for days or even weeks. Fortunately, they usually resolve on their own without treatment.

Varicella meningoencephalitis is another potential neurological complication. This is the inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord.

Symptoms can include a headache, sensitivity to light, neck stiffness and pain, delirium, and seizures. People with compromised immune systems are most at risk, including those with advanced HIV. 


Varicella pneumonia is the leading cause of VZV-related illness and death in adults. It develops when the virus travels to the lungs via the bloodstream, where it causes infection.

Risk factors include: 

Approximately one in every 400 adults who get chickenpox will be hospitalized as a result of this varicella pneumonia.


After a person is infected with chickenpox, VZV is not completely eliminated from the body. Instead, it embeds itself in clusters of nerve cells called ganglia, where it remains dormant (inactive).

Certain triggers can cause VZV to suddenly reactivate, often decades after the initial infection. The consequence is a painful, blister-like eruption known as shingles (herpes zoster).

Shingles most commonly affect adults over 50. Vaccination against shingles can help prevent this complication.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Chickenpox is an easily identifiable illness that a healthcare provider can often diagnose over the phone or a virtual visit. And, like most viral infections, it usually gets better on its own.

However, if you have signs of a secondary infection or other complications, call a healthcare provider immediately.

Symptoms of concern include:

  • Lesions that become increasingly larger and more painful
  • Lesions that turn into ulcers or have a pus-like discharge
  • High fever with chills
  • Lymph nodes in the neck that are tender to the touch
  • Rash that spreads to one or both eyes
  • Trouble breathing and wheezing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Severe headache with neck pain and vision changes
  • Constant, inconsolable crying in small children

Chicken Pox Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Child

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the first signs of chickenpox?

    The first signs of infection are generally mild flu-like symptoms. The characteristic chickenpox rash will then develop over the next day or so, followed by spot-like lesions. Chickenpox has an incubation period of 10 to 21 days, so it may take a while for symptoms to appear after exposure.

  • Is there a way to reduce the severity of chickenpox symptoms?

    Unfortunately, no. Usually, chickenpox must be allowed to simply run its course. Skin-soothing home remedies can help relieve itching, while over-the-counter pain medications can reduce discomfort. A prescription antiviral medication may be recommended for certain individuals.

  • Can you prevent chickenpox if you’ve been exposed to it?

    It’s unlikely. The virus spreads very easily, and without vaccination, the immune system has no defense against it. According to the CDC, about 90% of unvaccinated people in close contact with a contagious person will contract the virus themselves.

13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  10. Spernovasilis N, Milioni A, Gialamas I, Kokorakis E, Fanti G. Varicella-zoster virus meningitis with hypoglycorrhachia in a young immunocompetent adult without rash: a case report and literature reviewIDCases. 2018;12:104–6. doi:10.1016/j.idcr.2018.04.008

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  13. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. Shingles: overview.

Additional Reading

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
 Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.