Understanding the Varicella (Chickenpox) Vaccine: A Comprehensive Guide

Why Get Vaccinated?

Varicella, more commonly known as "chickenpox," can lead to serious complications beyond the typical itchy rash and fever. It may result in skin infections, pneumonia, inflammation of the blood vessels, brain and spinal cord coverings, infections of the bloodstream, bone, or joints. Additionally, some individuals may experience a painful rash known as "shingles" or herpes zoster years after the initial infection.

While chickenpox is often mild, it can be severe for infants under 12 months of age, adolescents, adults, pregnant individuals, and those with a weakened immune system. Hospitalizations and, in rare cases, fatalities can occur. Fortunately, two doses of the varicella vaccine can provide lifelong protection for most people.

The Vaccine

For effective immunization, children typically require two doses of the varicella vaccine:

  • First dose: 12 through 15 months of age
  • Second dose: 4 through 6 years of age

Older children, adolescents, and adults who aren't already immune to chickenpox also require two doses of the varicella vaccine. The vaccine can be administered alongside other vaccines and may be combined with the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine into a single MMRV shot for children between 12 months and 12 years of age.

Talk with Your Healthcare Provider

Before receiving the vaccine, make sure to inform your healthcare provider if you or the person getting the vaccine:

  • Has ever had an allergic reaction to a previous dose of the varicella vaccine or has severe, life-threatening allergies
  • Is pregnant or believes they might be – the varicella vaccine is not recommended for pregnant individuals
  • Has a weakened immune system, or a family history of hereditary or congenital immune system problems
  • Is taking salicylates (such as aspirin)
  • Has recently had a blood transfusion or received other blood products
  • Has tuberculosis
  • Has received any other vaccines in the past 4 weeks

In certain circumstances, your healthcare provider may postpone the varicella vaccination to a future visit. Individuals with minor illnesses can usually still receive the vaccine, but those who are moderately or severely ill should typically wait until they recover.

Risks of a Vaccine Reaction

As with any vaccine, there are potential side effects. These may include a sore arm from the injection, redness or rash at the injection site, or fever. More serious reactions, although rare, can include pneumonia, infection of the brain and/or spinal cord covering, or fever-related seizures. Individuals with serious immune system problems may face life-threatening infections from the vaccine and should not receive it.

It is also possible for vaccinated individuals to develop a rash. If this happens, the varicella vaccine virus could potentially be spread to an unprotected individual. In such cases, it's important to avoid contact with infants and immunocompromised individuals until the rash resolves.

Years after vaccination, some people may develop shingles (herpes zoster). However, this is significantly less common following vaccination than following a natural chickenpox infection.

What if There is a Serious Problem?

Severe allergic reactions can occur after leaving the clinic. Signs of a severe allergic reaction include hives, swelling of the face and throat, difficulty breathing, a fast heartbeat, dizziness, or weakness. If you notice any of these signs, call 9-1-1 and get to the nearest hospital immediately.

For any other signs that cause concern, contact your healthcare provider. Any adverse reactions should be reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). They can be reached at 1-800-822-7967 or via their website.

If an injury occurs due to vaccination, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) offers a way to seek compensation. Visit the VICP website or call 1-800-338-2382 to learn more about the program and the process of filing a claim.

For further information, consult your healthcare provider, local or state health department, or visit the CDC's varicella vaccine webpage.

Are a Pediatrician, Pediatric or Family
Nurse Practitioner, Medical Assistant or Medical Receptionist who loves kids and is interested in working with us?

Email your resume to [email protected]