Journal Article

Chickenpox or Smallpox: The Use of the Febrile Prodrome as a Distinguishing Characteristic

Zack S. Moore, Jane F. Seward, Barbara M. Watson, Teresa J. Maupin and Aisha O. Jumaan

in Clinical Infectious Diseases

Published on behalf of Infectious Diseases Society of America

Volume 39, issue 12, pages 1810-1817
Published in print December 2004 | ISSN: 1058-4838
Published online December 2004 | e-ISSN: 1537-6591 | DOI:
Chickenpox or Smallpox: The Use of the Febrile Prodrome as a Distinguishing Characteristic

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Background. The ability to differentiate chickenpox from smallpox is important for early recognition of bioterrorism events and prevention of false alarms. The febrile prodrome is a clinical feature used to differentiate these conditions. However, the prevalence of prodromal manifestations in chickenpox has not been well established.

Methods. We evaluated prodrome characteristics of all chickenpox cases identified through an active varicella surveillance program over a 21-month period. The frequencies of various prodromal manifestations among vaccinated and unvaccinated case patients were assessed, and the impact of other demographic features on these manifestations was evaluated. Data were analyzed to determine what proportion met the smallpox febrile prodrome criteria as elaborated in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention algorithm for evaluating patients suspected of having smallpox. Finally, we compared our data with historical data on smallpox prodromes.

Results. Data on prodrome characteristics were available for 932 chickenpox cases. Prodromal fever was present in 37% of unvaccinated chickenpox case patients and in 25% of vaccinated case patients. Among unvaccinated case patients, adults were 70% more likely than children to have fever in the prodrome period. We found that prodromes are less common and less severe in chickenpox than in smallpox. Nevertheless, 7%–17% of unvaccinated chickenpox case patients meet the smallpox febrile prodrome criteria.

Conclusions. Febrile prodromes occur in a significant proportion of patients with chickenpox, particularly among unvaccinated case patients and adults. Therefore, the febrile prodrome alone is not a sufficient marker of smallpox risk. All major and minor smallpox criteria should be considered together in assessing the likelihood of smallpox.

Journal Article.  3718 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Infectious Diseases ; Immunology ; Public Health and Epidemiology ; Microbiology

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