The Chickenpox Vaccine: Benefits, Risks, and Age Recommendations

Let’s find out more about the pros and cons of the chickenpox vaccine and who should get one.



What is chickenpox and what are the symptoms?

Chickenpox is a highly contagious condition caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). Chickenpox can spread easily when an unvaccinated person without the disease touches or breathes in virus particles from someone who has chickenpox. That’s why many schools require students to get the vaccine.

The notorious red rash is the hallmark of chickenpox, but infected people are contagious two days before it even appears . The rash starts out as raised reddish bumps, then transforms into itchy, fluid-filled blisters, and finally scabs over after 5-7 days. That’s when the person is no longer contagious. Before the rash appears, you may feel tired, lose your appetite, and have a fever or headache.


What complications can chickenpox cause?

Most people recover from chickenpox in a week, but sometimes, serious complications can occur that may lead to hospitalization or even death. Possible complications include:

  • Bacterial skin infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Brain infections
  • Bloodstream infections
  • Bleeding

Certain people are more likely to have complications from chickenpox:

  • Infants, especially if their mothers never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine
  • Adults
  • Pregnant women who have never had chickenpox
  • People with weak immune systems due to diseases like HIV/AIDS, medications like chemotherapy, or procedures like organ transplants


How does the chickenpox vaccine work and what are its benefits?

In the US, we have two vaccines that protect against chickenpox:

Both vaccines contain a live but weakened version of the chickenpox virus, which ensures that your body will have a strong protective response if it ever encounters the virus out in the real world. That’s a good thing! Since the virus is weakened, it isn’t strong enough to cause the actual chickenpox disease. That’s great, too! Full vaccination (two doses of chickenpox vaccine) typically provides protection for a lifetime and gives you a 95% chance of never getting the disease.



Why can’t I just let my child get the chickenpox like I did?

If you had chickenpox as a child and didn’t suffer from serious complications, you’re fortunate. Sadly, not everyone shares that experience. Before chickenpox vaccination began in the US, chickenpox caused over 100 deaths and over 10,000 hospitalizations every year. Now, after 15 years of vaccinations, chickenpox deaths have decreased by 90%, and hospitalizations have decreased by 84%.

The best way to protect your child from the severe complications of chickenpox is to have them get the vaccine. This will also protect their friends who may be less healthy and more likely to suffer from complications if they catch the disease.


Age recommendations and dosing schedules

Children younger than 13 years of age should get two doses of the chickenpox vaccine: one when the child is 12-15 months old and another when the child is 4-6 years old.

People 13 years of age or older who have never had chickenpox or received the vaccine should get two doses at least 28 days apart, especially if they work in healthcare settings or with children.

All 50 states have requirements for chickenpox vaccinations in school-aged children.


Who should not get the vaccine?

Most people tolerate the chickenpox vaccine well, but some people should not get it. Don’t get the vaccine if you:

  • Are allergic to the chickenpox vaccine, gelatin, or the antibiotic neomycin
  • Are moderately or severely ill
  • Are pregnant (Pregnant women can get the vaccine after they’ve given birth.)
  • Could be pregnant within the next month (It’s best to wait at least one month after getting the vaccine to get pregnant.)
  • Have HIV/AIDs
  • Are taking drugs that weaken the immune system, like chemotherapy or a course of steroids lasting two or more weeks
  • Have had a blood transfusion recently



What are potential side effects of the chickenpox vaccine?

Side effects from the chickenpox vaccine are usually mild and may include redness, soreness and swelling at the location where it’s given. In very rare cases, getting the vaccine might lead to a seizure, lung infection or whole-body rash. Again, the chickenpox vaccine will not cause chickenpox because the virus it contains is too weak to cause disease.


Can the chickenpox vaccine cause shingles?

Shingles is a painful disease that can happen to anyone who’s ever had chickenpox. It occurs when the chickenpox virus, VZV, reactivates later in life (usually after age 60). There’s a small possibility that if you receive the chickenpox vaccine which contains weakened VZV, you could also experience shingles later in life, but researchers are still studying this relationship.

The CDC recommends that adults 50 years and older get two doses of the shingles vaccine, Shingrix. Zostavax is another shingles vaccines available in the US.


How much does the chickenpox vaccine cost?

As a part of standard childhood vaccine recommendations, chickenpox is covered by most insurance plans. Without insurance, retail prices for Varivax and ProQuad are around $120 and $215, respectively. If you need help paying for a vaccine, these GoodRx coupons may be useful.

Children 18 years old or younger can get free vaccines through the Vaccines for Children program, as long as they fall into at least one of these categories:

  • Uninsured or underinsured
  • Medicaid-eligible
  • American Indian/Alaskan Native


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