About Varicella (Chickenpox)

What is Varicella?

Varicella (chickenpox) is a very contagious disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). Occurring most frequently in infants and young children, chickenpox causes a blister-like rash, itching, tiredness and fever. Chickenpox used to be very common in the United States, but frequency has diminished since the varicella vaccine became available for infants and children in 1995. Thanks to the chickenpox vaccine, the number of people who get chickenpox each year, as well as hospitalizations and deaths from chickenpox, has gone down dramatically in the United States. Among people who have had chickenpox, 1 out of every 3 is likely to develop shingles later in life.

What Vaccines are available to Prevent Chickenpox?

The varicella (chickenpox) vaccine is the best protection against chickenpox. The vaccine is made from weakened VZV that produces an immune response in the body, providing protection against a chickenpox infection in the event of a later exposure to VZV.

There are two types of chickenpox vaccine currently available. Each vaccine is somewhat unique:

Varivax®

  • Contains only chickenpox vaccine
  • Licensed for use in children 12 months and older, adolescents, and adults
  • Given in a 2-dose series with the interval depending on age:
    • 12 months to 12 years old: separate doses by at least 3 months
    • >13 years old: separate doses by at least 4 weeks

ProQuad®

  • Contains a combination of measles, mumps, rubella and varicella (chickenpox) vaccines, also called MMRV
  • Only licensed for use in children 12 months through 12 years old
  • Can be given to children for their routine two doses of chickenpox vaccine at 12 through 15 months old and 4 through 6 years old
  • Children who get the first dose of this vaccine at 12 to 23 months old may have a higher chance of seizure caused by fever; use with caution in children who have experienced a head injury or seizures in the past

Who Should Receive the Chickenpox Vaccine?

All children should be vaccinated for chickenpox at the ages listed above. Chickenpox vaccine is especially important for:

  • Healthcare professionals
  • People who care for or are around others with weakened immune systems
  • Teachers
  • Child care workers
  • Residents and staff in nursing homes and residential settings
  • College students
  • Inmates and staff of correctional institutions
  • Military personnel
  • Non-pregnant women of child-bearing age
  • Adolescents and adults living with children
  • International travelers

To check if you are protected from chickenpox, see Immunity (Protection) Against Chickenpox.

Some people with weakened immune systems who do not have immunity against chickenpox may be considered for vaccination after talking with their doctor, including people:

  • With HIV infection
  • With cancer, but whose disease is in remission
  • On low or high-dose steroids

For more information on vaccination of people with weakened immune systems, see Vaccination Recommendations for Specific Populations.

Also, see Getting Vaccinated After You Are Exposed to Chickenpox.

What are the Possible Side Effects of Chickenpox Vaccine?

Getting the chickenpox vaccine is much safer than getting the disease. Most people who get the vaccine do not have any problems with it. But as with any vaccine, there is a very small chance of having a side effect. Serious side effects to the chickenpox vaccine are very rare. They are usually more likely to occur after the first dose than after the second one.

Possible reactions include:

  • Soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given
  • Fever
  • Mild rash or several small bumps after vaccination. People who develop a chickenpox rash after vaccination can spread the disease to others, but this rarely occurs. People who have a chickenpox rash should stay away from people with weakened immune systems.
  • Seizure (jerking and staring spell) that may be caused by fever. Seizures after chickenpox vaccination may or may not be related to the chickenpox vaccine.

Serious side effects from chickenpox vaccine are extremely rare. They may include severe brain reactions and low blood count. These side effects happen so rarely that experts cannot tell whether they are caused by the chickenpox vaccine.

If experiencing any of these symptoms, see your doctor immediately for emergency care.

Reference: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/varicella/public/index.html

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