Chickenpox Vaccine, The

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(Please see the related Vaccine Information
Statement, The Chickenpox Vaccine: What You Need to Know
)

Chickenpox can be itchy and uncomfortable for
your child. It was one of the most common childhood illnesses before the
chickenpox vaccine was recommended routinely for infants. Anyone who
hasn’t received the vaccine can get chickenpox if exposed, but it occurs
most often in children 9 to 11 years of age. It’s also called
varicella.

The most obvious sign of chickenpox is a very
itchy rash with tiny bumps, blisters, and scabbed-over areas all at the same
time. Often symptoms are mild. In some cases, symptoms can be severe, especially
for newborns, teens, and adults. This is why the chickenpox vaccine is
important. It’s one way you can protect your child from getting
chickenpox. Read more to learn about chickenpox and the chickenpox vaccine.

What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

First, a rash of tiny blisters develops on your
child’s scalp and body. Over 3 to 4 days this rash spreads to the face,
arms, and legs. Your child may have between 250 to 500 small, itchy blisters or
just a few. After 2 to 4 days, the first blisters usually dry up. Then they scab
over and finally heal. At any one time, children will have part of the rash that
is tiny bumps, part that is tiny blisters, and part that is scabbed over and
dried up. Tiny sores and scars may develop. If your child scratches the
blisters, they can become infected.

Your child also may have a fever and other
symptoms including

  • Coughing

  • Fussiness

  • Loss of appetite

  • Headaches

How is chickenpox spread?

Chickenpox is very contagious. It’s only
spread from humans. After your child is exposed to the virus that causes
chickenpox, it will take 10 to 21 days before symptoms appear. Your child is
contagious 1 to 2 days before the rash starts and for up to 5 days after the
rash appears. Your child will have to stay home from child care or school until
she is no longer contagious.

The chickenpox virus may be spread

  • Through the air when an infected person
    coughs or sneezes

  • By direct contact with the fluid from
    broken blisters of an infected person

  • By direct contact with sores from a
    person with shingles

  • Children and adults have a very high
    risk of getting chickenpox if they have never had the disease or
    received chickenpox vaccine and someone at home or school has
    chickenpox.

How is chickenpox treated?

Acyclovir can help make the symptoms of
chickenpox less severe if taken within 24 hours after the start of the rash.
Most children don’t need this medicine, though. Your pediatrician may
prescribe it or a related medicine if your child has eczema or asthma, has a
weakened immune system, or is a teen.

The following are things you can do at home:

  • Remind your child not to
    scratch.
    If your child scratches the blisters before they are
    able to heal, they can become infected, can turn into small sores, and
    may leave scars.

  • Trim your child’s
    nails.
    You can help prevent other infections by keeping your
    child’s fingernails trimmed.

  • Relieve the itch. An
    oatmeal bath may help ease the itch. Oatmeal baths are available without
    a prescription.

  • Reduce a fever.
    Never give aspirin or other salicylates (medicines used
    to reduce pain or fever) to your child unless your pediatrician says
    it’s OK. Aspirin has been linked to Reye syndrome, a serious
    illness that involves the liver and brain, especially when given to
    children with chickenpox or the flu (influenza). Acetaminophen or
    ibuprofen may help reduce your child’s fever. Call your
    pediatrician if your child’s fever lasts longer than 4 days or
    rises above 102F or 39C after the third day of having
    chickenpox, or if your child becomes dehydrated. Let your pediatrician
    know if the rash gets very red, warm, or tender. Your child may have an
    infection that needs other treatment.

Can chickenpox cause other problems?

Most healthy children who get chickenpox
won’t have any problems. Before the vaccine was available, each year in
the United States about 10,500 to 13,500 people were hospitalized for chickenpox
and about 100 to 150 people died from the disease.

The most common problem from chickenpox is a
bacterial infection of the skin. Two other problems are pneumonia and
encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain). The following groups are at higher
risk of developing these problems:

  • People who have weak immune systems and
    get sick easily

  • Infants younger than 1 year

  • Teens and adults

  • Newborns whose mothers had chickenpox
    around the time of delivery

  • Premature infants whose mothers have not
    had chickenpox

  • Children with eczema and other skin
    conditions

  • Children taking salicylates

When adults get chickenpox, the disease is
usually more severe. For example,

  • Adults often develop pneumonia.

  • Adults are almost 10 times more likely
    to be hospitalized than children younger than 14 years.

  • Adults are more than 20 times more
    likely to die from chickenpox.

  • If a pregnant woman gets chickenpox, her
    unborn baby may have problems.

When should my child get the chickenpox vaccine?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 2
doses of the chickenpox vaccine for all healthy children who have not had
chickenpox. The first dose should be given between 12 to 15 months of age. The
second dose should be given between 4 to 6 years of age but may be given earlier
if given at least 28 days after the first dose.

During your child’s well-child visits,
your pediatrician will let you know if your child needs the chickenpox vaccine.
Ask your pediatrician about when your child should get the vaccine if your child
hasn’t received it by 15 months of age. People 13 years of age and older
who have never received the chickenpox vaccine or had the chickenpox also should
get 2 doses at least 28 days apart.

The chickenpox vaccine may be given to your
child at the same time as other vaccines.

Why should I vaccinate my child?

Most children who get the chickenpox vaccine
don’t get chickenpox. If a vaccinated child does get it, the symptoms are
generally much milder (for example, fewer sores and a low fever or no fever). In
fact, the disease may be so mild that the sores look like insect bites. Also, a
vaccinated child may get well faster.

Aside from the health benefits, vaccinating your
child could save you time and money. In general, a child with chickenpox may
need to miss up to 9 days of school; parents may need to miss work to care for
their child.

Is the chickenpox vaccine safe?

Yes. Many studies show the chickenpox vaccine is
safe and effective. Because the chickenpox vaccine was licensed in 1995,
millions of doses of vaccine have been given to children in the United
States.

In general, side effects from the chickenpox
vaccine are mild and include

  • Redness, soreness, or swelling where the
    shot was given

  • Tiredness

  • Fussiness

  • Fever

  • Nausea

A few children develop a rash at the spot where
the shot was given or on other parts of the body. This can occur up to 1 month
after the shot and can last for several days.

Who should NOT get the vaccine?

Although the chickenpox vaccine is safe for
healthy children, it’s not safe for the following people:

  • Children with weakened immune
    systems

  • Children with severe allergies to
    gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin

  • Pregnant women

If you are concerned, ask your pediatrician if
the chickenpox vaccine is safe for your child.

What is shingles?

Once someone has had chickenpox, the virus stays
in the body of the infected person forever. About 10% to 20% of
all people who have had chickenpox develop shingles. Clusters of blister-like
sores develop and last for 2 to 3 weeks. People with shingles usually feel
numbness and itching or severe pain. Anyone can get shingles, but it usually
occurs in adults older than 50 years. A new vaccine to prevent shingles has just
become available for people 60 years of age or older.