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Chickenpox and Measles: How to Tell Them Apart

Contagious and causing a red rash, chickenpox and measles share similar symptoms that might confuse people. However, both diseases have differences.

A close-up shot of a toddler with red chickenpox rash on his face

If your child comes home with itchy red bumps and blisters coupled with a fever, you know they might have chickenpox. But considering chickenpox symptoms are very similar to measles symptoms, it may be hard to tell which your child has.

This article will reveal the differences between and treatments for chickenpox and measles. In addition, it will also include Traditional Chinese Medicine’s (TCM) perspective on both illnesses and their remedies.

Chickenpox and Measles: A History 

What are the characteristics of the two infectious diseases? Let’s find out below: 


Sources reveal different things about chickenpox’s history, but evidence shows that it has been around since ancient times. In China, the first mention of this disease was found in TCM literature from the 12th century. It wasn’t until the 1970s that a vaccine was finally developed in Japan. This vaccine has been available in Malaysia since 1997. 

While chickenpox is considered by many to be a childhood disease, adults can get infected too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that because children in tropical countries tend to get chickenpox when they are older, adults in tropical countries are more susceptible to it compared to adults living in countries with more temperate climates.

Adults with chickenpox also have a higher chance of developing complications, such as: 

  1. Bacterial infection in skin lesions 
  2. Pneumonia 
  3. Central nervous system manifestations (myelopathy, encephalitis, meningitis, and vasculopathy)
  4. In rare cases, Reye syndrome 


An early account of measles can be traced as far back as the 3rd century in Chinese literature, by a famed physician during the Ming dynasty named Wan Quan. In the 1700s, it was known as a highly infectious disease that brought about massive outbreaks and major infant death before a vaccine was eventually invented in the 1960s.

Today, the measles vaccine, also known as the MMR vaccine, is combined with mumps and rubella.

A close-up shot of a toddler with red chickenpox rash on his face
Chickenpox is common in children.

Although complications are unusual, children under five, especially if they are malnourished, and adults over 30, can be at risk. Some examples of complications are: 

  1. Blindness
  2. Encephalitis 
  3. Severe diarrhoea 
  4. Ear infections 
  5. Pneumonia or other respiratory infections 

In 2019, studies conducted by researchers on measles diminishing pre-existing antibodies discovered that measles could wipe out the immune system’s memory of other illnesses. After contracting measles, children may acquire lifelong immunity to it, but they will be more vulnerable to other diseases.

Chickenpox and Measles Symptoms 

Some common symptoms of chickenpox include: 

  1. Fever 
  2. Tiredness 
  3. Loss of appetite 
  4. Headache 
  5. Following the symptoms above, a rash may show up on the chest, back and face before appearing on other body parts 

Symptoms of measles are: 

  1. Fever 
  2. Runny or blocked nose
  3. Sneezing
  4. Cough 
  5. Red, sore, watery eyes 
  6. Small white spots inside the cheeks 
  7. A rash on the face and neck followed by other body parts  

Chickenpox vs measles: The Differences 

What starts out like a cold and is succeeded by a rash, chickenpox and measles share similar symptoms that might confuse some people. But both diseases have several differences: 

Treatment of Chickenpox and Measles 

Chickenpox and measles cases will usually last about a week. During the recovery phase of chickenpox, the fluid-filled blisters would transform into scabs.

To treat the fever, drink a lot of water and take paracetamol or ibuprofen. Child patients are strictly prohibited from consuming aspirin. They’re also usually prescribed vitamin A to prevent measles from causing eye damage and blindness. 

That itch might be caused by chickenpox.
Avoid scratching to prevent scars of infection from occurring. Soothe the skin by applying calamine lotion.

Chickenpox and Measles Treatment according to TCM 

From TCM’s perspective, invasion of external seasonal pathogens causes chickenpox and measles. These pathogens will bring toxic Heat to the body, which manifest as skin lesions.

TCM Treatment for Chickenpox 

To clear Heat from the body, TCM recommends Chinese herbs honeysuckle flower (jin yin hua, 金银花) and Weeping forsythia (lian qiao, 连翘). Other herbs like Rehmannia root (sheng di huang, 生地黃) and figwort root (xuan shen, 玄參) can be used for more severe cases. 

It is important to avoid scratching the itch to prevent infections or scars. Pressing a cool, wet cloth to the skin may help to relieve the itch. Alternatively, TCM advises applying calamine lotion or herbal wash with sophora root (ku shen, 苦参) and Herba spirodelae (fu ping, 浮萍) as ingredients.

TCM Treatment for Measles 

Likewise, an external herbal wash with Herba spirodelae and perilla leaf (zi su ye, 紫苏叶) may effectively treat measles.

TCM also suggests consuming heat-dispelling herbs like peppermint (bo he, 薄荷peppermint) and Fructus arctii (niu bang zi, 牛蒡子) in the early stages of the disease. When rash arises, use the herbs honeysuckle flower and frosthyia fruit (lian qiao, 连翘). 

For recovering patients, TCM believes that consuming Glehnia roots (sha shen, 沙参) and Ophiopogon tuber (mai men dong, 麦门冬) can replenish their yin

The herbs can work for both children and adults, although adults require a much higher dosage. On top of that, children below seven may be benefit from pediatric tuina massage that can help speed up recovery, increase appetite and improve immunity. 

Like other contagious diseases, chickenpox and measles occur when a person’s immune system is compromised. Therefore, it is crucial to always keep the immunity strong, even after vaccination.

This is an adaptation of an article, “Measles Rash or Chickenpox? Understanding The Difference and Remedies”, which first appeared on the All Things Health website


  1. The Star. 2009. Do Away with Chickenpox  [Accessed 24 April 2022]
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2011. Varicella  [Accessed 24 April 2022] 
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2011. Signs and Symptoms  [Accessed 24 April 2022] 
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014. Measles History  [Accessed 24 April 2022] 
  5. World Health Organization. 2018. Measles [Accessed 24 April 2022] 
  6. Nature. 2019. Measles erases immune ‘memory’ for other diseases  [Accessed 24 April 2022] 
  7. National Health Service. 2007. Measles  [Accessed 24 April 2022] 

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