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The Chickenpox Vaccine: Health 101

The chickenpox vaccine protects against chickenpox, a virus that causes a rash of those telltale itchy spots. Highly contagious, chickenpox can spread through the air (from coughing, sneezing, and breathing) or from skin-to-skin contact with the rash. Before the vaccine was introduced in the U.S. in 1995, chickenpox was one of the most common childhood diseases -- there were about 4 million cases annually. Since the vaccine has become widely used in the U.S., chickenpox cases have decreased by up to 90 percent.

Though chickenpox is usually not dangerous, sometimes it can be. And even mild cases are pretty uncomfortable, if not outright painful, for your kid. (The virus causes kids to miss five to six days of school on average.) In serious instances, chickenpox spots can become infected, leading to scars, pneumonia, brain damage, and even death. About one in 500 kids who gets chickenpox is hospitalized.

The chickenpox vaccine isn't 100 percent effective (about 10 to 30 percent of people vaccinated may still come down with it), but it does make future cases significantly less serious. People who get chickenpox after being vaccinated typically have fewer spots and blisters, lower fever, and a faster recovery than those who are not vaccinated.

The vaccine also helps to protect your child from a similar disease called shingles. This virus strikes when the chickenpox virus, which typically remains dormant in the body forever after you've contracted it, reactivates -- causing another painful, blistery rash that can be especially serious in older adults. Research has shown that people who develop immunity to chickenpox naturally are much more likely to come down with shingles later in life than those who were vaccinated.

The chickenpox vaccine is given to young children in two doses, the first between 12-15 months and a booster shot between 4-6 years.

Children 13 and older who've never had chickenpox or been vaccinated should get two doses at least 28 days apart.

The chickenpox vaccine can be given at the same time as other vaccines. It is also available as part of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, in a combination shot called MMRV.

While the chickenpox vaccine is one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) recommended childhood vaccinations, people who fall into the following categories should not receive it:

  • People who've had an allergic reaction to a previous dose of chickenpox vaccine
  • People who are allergic to gelatin (the stuff in Jell-O) or the antibiotic neomycin
  • Pregnant women (or women planning to become pregnant within one month of getting the vaccine)
  • People with a suppressed immune system (or who are taking medications that may affect the immune system, like steroids for asthma, for example), cancer, or who recently received a blood transfusion
  • Kids who are moderately or severely ill (more than just a cold, for example), should wait to get vaccinated

Talk to your doctor if you're concerned about whether or not the chickenpox vaccine is safe for your child.

Getting the chickenpox vaccine is much less risky than contracting the actual illness. Some mild side effects are common:

  • About 20 percent of children and up to one-third of teens and adults will have soreness or swelling near where they get the shot.
  • Up to 10 percent of people may develop a fever.
  • Up to 5 percent of people may develop a minor rash, up to a month after receiving the shot.

Children who get the MMRV vaccine (a combination of the measles-mumps-rubella and chickenpox vaccines) may be more likely to get fever and a mild rash than those who get MMR and chickenpox vaccines separately.

Other potential but rare side effects from the chickenpox vaccine include seizures (caused by high fever) and pneumonia.

As with any vaccine, severe allergic reactions are very rare, but possible. If you notice your child having difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, hives, paleness, weakness, dizziness, or a rapid heartbeat shortly after receiving a shot, call your doctor right away.

Even though the chickenpox vaccine has been around for more than a decade, some parents prefer not to vaccinate their kids against it, instead hoping they will contract the virus "naturally" -- or even deliberately exposing them to infected kids. But many experts disapprove of this idea. For one thing, it's getting harder to find other children with chickenpox as more and more kids become vaccinated.

What's more, complications from chickenpox may not be very common, but they are serious. "All children face some risk," says Neal Halsey, MD, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland and a member of the Parents magazine board of advisors. "And in the pre-vaccine days, about 80 percent of complications actually occurred in children who were otherwise healthy." Since it's impossible to predict how your child will respond to the infection, it's important to prevent it in the first place.

If your child didn't receive the chickenpox vaccine as a baby and hasn't come down with the illness by the time he's 10 or 11, you may want to seriously think about him getting him vaccinated, says Robert W. Sears, MD, author of The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child. Also, a simple blood test can show if your child's been exposed to enough of the disease to have already developed immunity. Teens and adults tend to experience more serious side effects from chickenpox so it's important that you know your child is protected.

Sources: Neal Halsey, MD, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland and a member of the Parents magazine board of advisors. Robert W. Sears, MD, author of The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child. Paul Offit, MD, Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and a member of the American Baby magazine advisory board member. CDC sections on Varicella Vaccination. AAP section on Varicella Vaccination. The Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford section on Chickenpox. The Mayo Clinic sections on Chickenpox.



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