Varicella Vaccine
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Varicella Vaccine

(Chickenpox Vaccine)

En Español (Spanish Version)

What Is Varicella?

Varicella , which is commonly referred to as "chickenpox," is a highly contagious infection that is caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV). It produces a widespread itchy rash and can cause serious complications, especially in adults, newborns, or people with suppressed immune systems.

VZV spreads from person to person via airborne droplets of moisture that contain the virus or by direct contact with fluid from a varicella rash. Varicella is most contagious just after the rash has broken out, but it is also contagious 1-2 days before the rash erupts and until all of the blisters have crusted.

Varicella occurs most often in the late winter and early spring. This infection is most common in children, with peak incidence between 5-9 years old. Also, people who have not been vaccinated and have been in close contact with an infected person and people with immune deficiencies (eg, leukemia , transplantation) are at increased risk of developing varicella.

Symptoms include:

  • Mild headache
  • Moderate fever
  • General feeling of malaise
  • A rash consisting of small, flat, red spots that become raised to form round, itchy, fluid-filled blisters

It takes about 10-21 days after contact with an infected person to develop varicella, and the illness lasts 5-10 days. The rash usually develops on the skin above the waist, including the scalp. It may also appear on the eyelids, in the mouth, upper airway, or voice box, or on the genitals.

Treatment is generally concentrated on reducing itchiness. Treatments to reduce itchiness may include wet compresses, anti-itch creams or lotions, oatmeal baths, and/or oral antihistamines. For rashes that become infected with bacteria, antibiotics may be prescribed. In adolescents, adults, and people with compromised immune systems, antiviral drugs (eg, acyclovir, valacyclovir, famciclovir) may be prescribed. Finally, varicella-zoster immune globulin is often given immediately after exposure to VZV in newborns and people with compromised immune systems.

What Is the Varicella Vaccine?

The varicella vaccine is a live virus vaccine that is given by injection. The vaccine must be stored in a freezer prior to administration.

Who Should Get Vaccinated and When?

The varicella vaccine is recommended for virtually all children 12-18 months of age. The second dose is administered between age 4-6 years.

For those who have not been vaccinated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following schedule:

  • Up to age 13 years—2 doses, with an interval of 3 months between the first and second dose (minimum age of 12 months for the first dose)
  • 13 years and above—2 doses, with a minimum interval of 4 weeks between the first and second dose*

What Are the Risks Associated With the Varicella Vaccine?

The varicella vaccine, like all vaccines, is capable of causing problems such as a severe allergic reaction, but the risk of serious harm or death is extremely small. Most people who get the varicella vaccination do not have any problems.

The most common complaints associated with the vaccine are soreness or swelling around the injection site, fever, or a mild rash. Less commonly, seizure caused by fever, pneumonia, or other serious problems (eg, severe brain reactions, low blood count) have been reported after a varicella vaccination.

Who Should Not Get Vaccinated?

People who have had varicella do not need to get vaccinated.

People who have had a life-threatening allergic reaction to gelatin, the antibiotic neomycin, or a previous dose of the varicella vaccine should not get vaccinated. Pregnant women should wait to get the varicella vaccine until after they have given birth, and women should wait one month after receiving the vaccine to get pregnant.

People who have HIV/AIDS or another disease that affects the immune system, those who are being treated with medications that affect the immune system (eg, long-term steroids), those who have cancer, and those who have had a recent blood transfusion should talk with their doctor before receiving the varicella vaccine.

What Other Ways Can Varicella Be Prevented Besides Vaccination?

Avoiding contact with people who have varicella can reduce the chance of getting it.

What Happens in the Event of an Outbreak?

In the event of a varicella outbreak, people who have not had varicella or the vaccine should be vaccinated by their primary care physician or at a vaccination clinic.


American Academy of Pediatrics

National Immunization Program
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Arizona Department of Health Services website. Available at: Accessed February 2, 2007.

Rutgers University website. Available at: . Accessed February 2, 2007.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: . Accessed February 2, 2007.

*Updated Who Should Get Vaccinated and When section on 1/31/2008 according to the following study, as cited by DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommended immunization schedules for persons aged 0-18 years—United States, 2008. MMWR. 2008;57;Q1-Q4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MMWR website. Available at: Updated January 10, 2008. Accessed January 28, 2008.

Last reviewed February 2008 by David Horn, MD, FACP

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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