Vaccinations: Chickenpox

What is chickenpox? 

Parents born before 1995 (the year the chickenpox vaccine was licensed) are likely to remember the itchy blisters of varicella, also known as chickenpox. For most healthy children, chickenpox is just an uncomfortable nuisance with itchy, blister-like lesions that cover the body — mostly concentrated on the face, scalp, and neck — along with listlessness and fever. 

The risk of serious complications is much higher for infants, pregnant women, adolescents, adults, and people with compromised immune systems. In severe cases, chickenpox can lead to dehydration, pneumonia, bacterial skin infection, or inflammation of the brain, which can lead to death.

Why should I vaccinate my child? 

Chickenpox use to infect almost every person during childhood. Although most people who are sickened by chickenpox then develop immunity to the illness, some gain only partial immunity, and can catch the illness again.

Before the chickenpox vaccine was introduced, an estimated 4 million cases of chickenpox were reported each year, resulting in 11,000 hospitalizations and over 100 deaths annually. Since its introduction, the number of cases has steadily declined in all age groups, with the greatest decline among children 1–4 years of age. In some areas of the United States, the number of cases has decreased as much as 90 percent compared to pre-vaccination numbers. 

The CDC warns that if people stop vaccinating against this highly contagious illness, chickenpox will once again become a common childhood occurrence. It’s important to remember that the vaccination not only reduces the number of chickenpox cases, but also helps protect those who are not yet fully vaccinated (including young infants and children) and those who cannot be vaccinated (those at greatest risk for chickenpox) due to illness or other health conditions.

How many doses will my child receive? 

The chickenpox vaccine is typically given as a series of two shots in the leg or arm. The vaccine schedule for children is given at these ages:

  • 1st Dose: 12-15 months of age
  • 2nd Dose: 4-6 years of age (may be given earlier, if at least 3 months after the 1st dose)

Some health care providers choose to give a “combination” vaccine, called MMRV, which protects against measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella (chickenpox). This combination vaccine only requires one shot. It's most often given to children age 12 or younger.  

For more information, visit the CDC website

What are the possible side effects? 

Most people who get the chickenpox vaccine do not have any complications. When side effects do occur, the most common are soreness or swelling at the injection site; less commonly are fever and mild rash. In extremely rare cases, people with the mild rash infected other members of their household. More serious but rare complications include seizures caused by fever. 

When should I call a doctor? 

Parents should immediately call 911 or alert their child’s health care provider if their child experiences an allergic reaction. Signs of an allergic reaction include difficulty breathing, wheezing, hives, paleness, or swelling of the face, throat, tongue, lips, eyes, or feet. Such side effects would likely occur within a few minutes to a few hours of receiving the vaccination. Parents should also contact their child’s health care provider if the child displays unusual behavior or has a high fever (100° F or higher in newborns up to 6 weeks old, 102° F or higher in children 6 weeks to 2 years old, 103° F or higher in children age 2 or older).

Last updated February 10, 2020

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