What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a very contagious disease caused by the varicella zoster virus. Early symptoms usually include:

The rash appears first on the face and trunk, and can spread over the entire body, usually causing between 250 and 500 blisters. Prior to the varicella vaccine, chickenpox was a common childhood disease. Most adults had chickenpox as a child. It is rare for a person to get chickenpox more than once.

What is shingles?

After a person has had chickenpox, the virus that causes it (varicella zoster) stays in the body in certain nerve cells without causing symptoms. As a person ages or if their immune system is weakened, the virus can reactivate and come back in the form of shingles (herpes zoster). Shingles is a painful blistery rash, which usually shows up in a narrow band on one side of the body. Usually only older adults get shingles, but it is possible for younger people and even children to get shingles. There is a shingles vaccine available as a single dose recommended for adults 60 years and older for prevention of shingles.

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How is chickenpox spread?

Chickenpox is easily spread through the air by sneezing and coughing or through contact with someone’s chickenpox rash. If you have never had chickenpox, you can get infected by just being in the same room with someone who has the disease. Chickenpox is contagious for one to two days before the rash appears, and until all blisters have formed scabs. It takes from 10 to 21 days after contact with an infected person for someone to develop the illness.

Being with someone who has chickenpox or shingles does NOT cause shingles. Although shingles is not very contagious, direct contact with the rash of someone who has shingles can cause chickenpox in a person who has never had chickenpox.

Is chickenpox serious?

Historically, chickenpox was usually a mild disease, but it can be severe especially among infants, adults, and people with weak immune systems. In the U.S., prior to the introduction of varicella vaccine in 1995, there were approximately 10,000 hospitalizations and 100 deaths from chickenpox every year. The majority of deaths and complications occur in previously healthy individuals, including healthy children.

Chickenpox is usually more severe in adults than in children. An individual may recover from chickenpox without any complications, but could, while ill, spread the disease to someone else with lessened ability to fight complications of the disease. The most common serious side effects are bacterial skin infections, pneumonia, and brain swelling and infection (encephalitis). Infections can involve many sites of the body including the skin, tissues under the skin, and the blood. Shingles can be even more severe. Every year in the U.S., more than 30,000 people are hospitalized and more than 1,000 people die from complications of shingles.

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Chickenpox and Chickenpox Vaccine

How do you prevent chickenpox?

Chickenpox vaccine is the best way to prevent chickenpox, and protect individuals from severe complications and death that can be associated with the disease. Even with uncomplicated cases, lost time from school and work and the cost of medications or treatment needed can be a big expense for the family. Preventing chickenpox also protects a person from getting shingles later on.

About eight to nine out of every 10 vaccinated people are protected from getting chickenpox at all. The vaccine almost always prevents severe disease. If a vaccinated person does get chickenpox, it is usually a very mild case, often without a fever. Vaccinated children who get chickenpox can spread the disease to others who are not protected.

Chickenpox vaccine is 70 to 100 percent effective in preventing disease, or helping to make the illness much less serious -- if used within three days, and possibly up to five days, after exposure to someone with chickenpox. If exposed to the disease, a person who has never had chickenpox and is at higher risk for severe chickenpox illness should talk to his or her health care provider about the best steps to take.

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Who should get chickenpox vaccine?

Everyone over the age of 12 months who has never had chickenpox, and has no contraindications, should be vaccinated against this disease. Young children are not the only ones who need chickenpox vaccine. If teens or adults get chickenpox, they have a greater risk of serious complications. If you or your teenager hasn’t had chickenpox, talk to your doctor or nurse about vaccination. The recommended schedule is one dose of vaccine at 12 months and a second dose at 4 to 6 years of age. People 13 years and older who do not have evidence of immunity should receive two doses of vaccine, separated by at least four weeks.


For more information, contact your health care provider or the Vermont Department of Health Immunization Program at 863-7638 or 1-800-464-4343, ext. 7638.

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Page updated: 07/17/2008