What is Chickenpox?

Chickenpox, also known as varicella, is a very contagious disease caused by the Herpes varicella-zoster virus (VZV). It is spread easily through the air by infected people when they sneeze or cough.

The disease also spreads through contact with an infected person’s chickenpox blisters. People who have never had chickenpox can get infected just by being in a room with someone who has the disease.

Symptoms of Chickenpox

Early symptoms may include aches, fever, fatigue, irritability and sore throat. An itchy, blistering rash then appears which can develop into as many as 250-500 blisters.

The rash may even spread into the mouth or other internal parts of the body. In people who have been infected, symptoms appear between 10 and 21 days after exposure to the varicella virus.

What is Shingles?

Some people who have had chickenpox may develop shingles later in life. Shingles or Herpes zoster, is a common illness that may strike 1 in 5 Americans.

Shingles is caused by a reactivation of the same Herpes varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox.

Shingles is associated with normal aging and with anything that weakens the immune system such as certain medications, cancers, infections or inborn disorders.

Symptoms of Shingles

A painful, blistering rash tends to occur on one side of the body, usually on the trunk or face. There may be pain, numbness or tingling of the area 2-4 days before the rash appears. Pain or numbness can persist, sometimes for as long as a year, after the rash is gone. Damage can occur to the eyes or other organs if involved during a shingles outbreak.

Prevention of Chickenpox

There is a vaccine to protect against chickenpox. Two doses of the vaccine are recommended for people 13 years or older who have not had chickenpox. Studies are underway to test whether the vaccine can help prevent the development and/or lessen the severity of shingles.

Who should get the Chickenpox vaccine?

Adolescents 13 years of age or older and adults who have not received the vaccine and have not already had chickenpox including:

  • Healthcare workers
  • College students
  • Household contacts of immune-compromised persons
  • Residents and staff in institutional settings
  • Inmates and staff of correctional institutions
  • International travelers
  • Military personnel
  • Non pregnant women of childbearing age
  • Teachers and day care workers
  • Non-immune persons who have been exposed to chickenpox may receive varicella vaccine within 3 days (72 hours) of the exposure to prevent or diminish the severity of illness

Chickenpox Vaccine Safety

Research has shown chickenpox vaccine to be 70-90% effective in preventing disease and 95% effective in preventing severe disease. Varicella vaccine is also very safe. The most common side effects are mild and may include pain and redness at the injection site. A mild rash may develop.

As with any medicine, there are very small risks that serious problems could occur after getting a vaccine. However, the potential risks associated with varicella disease are much greater than the potential risks associated with the varicella vaccine.

Chickenpox Facts

  • Chickenpox (varicella) can be prevented with a vaccine.
  • Chickenpox is contagious from 1 to 2 days before until 4 to 5 days after the rash appears.
  • Following infection, it usually takes 2 to 3 weeks before the symptoms of chickenpox begin to appear.
  • Less than 5% of adults are susceptible to infection with the chickenpox virus. Younger adults are more likely to be susceptible, and adults are more likely to die from chickenpox and complications of chickenpox than children.
  • Chickenpox poses a significant threat to immune-compromised persons. The best way to prevent infection in each patient is by immunizing susceptible family members and close contacts of the person.
  • There are an estimated 600,000 to one million cases of shingles diagnosed annually in the U.S.
  • Shingles, typically affects people 50 years of age and older, particularly those whose immune systems have been weakened by age, HIV infection, cancer, or treatment with immuno-suppressive drugs.

National Coalition for Adult Immunization
4733 Bethesda Avenue, Suite 750
Bethesda, MD 20814-5228

These facts have been provided by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFDI) Chickenpox fact sheet.

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