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Chickenpox vs. measles: What’s the difference?

Chickenpox and measles are both viral infectious diseases, each caused by its distinct virus. Chickenpox stems from the varicella-zoster virus, while measles, also known as rubeola, arises from the measles virus.

Once common childhood infections, both diseases are now preventable through vaccination, although measles remains less prevalent in the US compared to chickenpox.

Let’s delve deeper into the disparities between chickenpox and measles.

Symptoms:

Chickenpox symptoms may include:

  • A rash initially appearing on the chest, face, and back, which can subsequently spread
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Decreased appetite

Measles symptoms commonly include:

  • A rash starting at the hairline or forehead and progressing downward
  • Fever
  • Persistent cough
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Red, inflamed eyes
  • Koplik’s spots (small red spots with blue-white centers inside the mouth and cheeks)

Though both diseases manifest a distinctive rash, their appearances differ. Chickenpox presents raised red bumps evolving into fluid-filled blisters that rupture before scabbing over. In contrast, the measles rash consists of flat red spots, sometimes with raised bumps lacking fluid, which may merge as the rash spreads.

Contagious Period:

Both chickenpox and measles are highly contagious:

  • Chickenpox spreads through respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing, as well as contact with contaminated surfaces or fluids.
  • Measles transmits similarly through the air and contact with contaminated surfaces.

Chickenpox contagion starts up to two days before rash onset and lasts until all blisters crust over. Measles, on the other hand, remains contagious up to four days before rash appearance and four days thereafter.

Treatment:

As viral infections, treatment for both focuses on symptom alleviation:

  • Antihistamines may relieve itching in chickenpox.
  • Antiviral medications like acyclovir could mitigate chickenpox severity, particularly for high-risk groups.
  • Post-exposure therapy, involving vaccination or immune globulin, may lessen measles severity if administered promptly after exposure.

Home Management:

Symptom management strategies include:

  • Rest and hydration
  • Fever reduction with OTC medications (avoid aspirin in children)
  • Humidifiers for cough or sore throat
  • Specific measures for chickenpox rash management to prevent scratching and alleviate itching.

Vaccination

Preventative vaccination is crucial for both diseases, typically administered in two doses during childhood.

Outlook

Chickenpox infections typically resolve within 5 to 10 days, occasionally leading to severe complications, especially in high-risk individuals. Although rare, the varicella-zoster virus can reactivate later in life, causing shingles.

Measles infections may last two to three weeks and can result in various complications such as ear infections, bronchitis, pneumonia, and encephalitis.

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