Varicella, commonly called chickenpox, is a highly contagious infection. It is caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV). It produces an itchy rash. It can cause serious complications, especially in adults, newborns, or people with weak immune systems.
VZV spreads from person to person by:
It is most contagious just after the rash has broken out. It is also contagious 1-2 days before the rash erupts and until all of the blisters have crusted.
It takes about 10-21 days to develop varicella after contact with an infected person. The illness lasts 5-10 days. The rash usually develops on the face and trunk.
Treatment generally focuses on reducing itchiness, such as using anti-itch cream. Antibiotics may be used for rashes that become infected. Antiviral drugs might be considered for some people.
Varicella can lead to scarring, pneumonia, and death in severe cases.
Varicella vaccine is a live virus vaccine that is given by injection. The varicella vaccine can also be given in a combination vaccine called the MMRV. This protects against measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella.
The vaccine is recommended for most children aged 12-15 months. The second dose is given between ages 4-6 years.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following schedule for those who have not been vaccinated:
If you are an adult who has not been fully vaccinated and have never had chickenpox, it is recommended that you get vaccinated. Talk to your doctor. If you have certain conditions, you will not be able to get the vaccine.
If you or your child has not been vaccinated but has been exposed to chickenpox, getting vaccinated within 3 days can help reduce the virus or offer protection from the infection.
The varicella vaccine, like all vaccines, can cause problems, such as severe allergic reaction. The risk of serious harm or death is extremely small. Most people do not have any problems with the vaccine.
The most common complaints are:
Shingles can happen after the vaccine, but it is much less common that shingles after the infection itself. Less commonly, seizure caused by fever, pneumonia, or other serious problems (such as low blood count) have been reported. There is some evidence that children are more likely to have seizures if they are given the MMRV vaccine as the first dose. The CDC recommends that parents be advised of the risk of fever and seizure. Parents should be given the option to choose the combined or separate vaccine.
You should not get the vaccine if you:
Talk to your doctor before getting the vaccine if you have the following conditions:
Avoiding contact with people who have the virus can reduce the chance of getting it.
In the event of an outbreak, people who have not had the virus or the vaccine should be vaccinated.
WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?
Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics
Vaccines & Immunizations
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Chickenpox. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116084/Chickenpox . Updated June 19, 2017. Accessed December 6, 2017.
Chickenpox VIS. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/varicella.html. Updated June 18, 2013. Accessed December 6, 2017.
Immunization schedules. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/index.html. Updated February 6, 2017. Accessed May 22, 2017.
Klein NP, Fireman B, Yih WK, et al. Measles-mumps-rubella-varicella combination vaccine and the risk of febrile seizures. Pediatrics. 2010;126(1):e1-e8.
MMRV and febrile Seizures. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/vaccines/mmrv/mmrv-febrile-seizures.html. Updated August 28, 2015. Accessed December 6, 2017.
Varicella (chickenpox) vaccination. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/varicella/index.html. Updated November 22, 2016. Accessed December 6, 2017
Weinmann S, Chun C, Schmid DS, et al. Incidence and clinical characteristics of herpes zoster among children in the varicella vaccine era, 2005-2009. J Infect Dis. 2013:208(11):1859-1868.
10/14/2008 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T116084/Chickenpox : Macartney K, McIntryre P. Vaccines for post-exposure prophylaxis against varicella (chickenpox) in children and adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008;(3):CD001833.
Last reviewed November 2018 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated: 12/20/2014