Varicella (Chickenpox): Unprotected Story
"Everyone said don’t worry—natural immunity is better."
I never imagined that within a few short days [of noticing the blister on her cheek], my baby would be in the hospital fighting for her life.
Zoe was 13 months old when her mom, Amy, first noticed the blister on her cheek. "I never imagined that within a few short days, my baby would be in the hospital fighting for her life."
At first, Amy did not think the blister was anything to worry about. But by the next day, there were blisters on her trunk, scalp, and face. Amy took Zoe to the pediatrician who said that Zoe had chickenpox. For her age-13 months-Zoe was up to date on all her vaccinations, but had not yet received the chickenpox vaccine. Her doctor, who followed the recommended schedule for giving the chickenpox vaccine during age 12 through 15 months, had set Zoe to get the vaccine at her 15-month check-up.
"We have no idea where Zoe was exposed to chickenpox," Amy says. "It was summertime and we were everywhere, doing lots of activities where there were a lot of kids."
At first, other than being a little itchy, Zoe seemed fine and was acting like her normal, happy self. "Everyone told me not to worry—she’d be fine. Some told me we were lucky that Zoe caught chickenpox, because they thought natural immunity is better than getting the vaccine," Amy recalls. "So, I didn’t worry."
Within a few days of noticing that first blister, Amy thought a few of the blisters looked infected. Worried, Amy called the pediatrician, who gave her instructions to continue treating Zoe at home with medicine to reduce her fever and relieve her itching. "Although she had a slight fever, Zoe was still pretty playful. I gave her some Tylenol and an oatmeal bath and put her to bed," Amy says.
"But the next morning, I had a hard time waking her up. More blisters were infected and huge chunks of her skin on her back and belly were literally falling off," Amy recalls. She took Zoe to the pediatrician, who immediately rushed her to the hospital. "Within 4 hours of getting Zoe out of bed and to the doctor, the area of affected skin had doubled. It was the scariest thing I had ever seen."
"When we first arrived at the hospital, Zoe’s fever had reached 104 degrees and she barely had energy to move." At the hospital, doctors determined that Zoe’s chickenpox blisters were infected with the Staphylococcus aureus (staph) bacteria. The hospital doctors immediately started her on antibiotics. It took 12 hours of antibiotics before Zoe began to get better. Plus, Zoe was so uncomfortable that she was given morphine to control her pain.
Zoe spent a week in isolation at the hospital. Doctors limited Zoe’s contact with the family to prevent the infection from spreading.
Thankfully the treatment during her hospital stay worked. Six days later, Zoe was able to go home-but she was bandaged from head to toe to protect her healing skin.
To ensure Zoe was not exposed to anything that could cause another infection, she had to stay home from child care until all of the chickenpox blisters healed. In total, Amy missed more than 2 weeks of work due to Zoe’s illness.
Fortunately, Zoe made a full recovery. But a year later, Zoe still has a few scars-on her face, back and above her knee-that serve as a constant reminder of her life-threatening experience with chickenpox.
"It never occurred to me just how serious chickenpox could be," Amy says. "Zoe was very lucky, because she could have very easily died from her infection-but thank goodness we still have our precious girl. Other children are not so lucky. I encourage all parents to get their kids vaccinated for chickenpox."
While staph infections of the skin are common in infants and young children, they usually are mild. However, chickenpox blisters can provide a place for staph bacteria to enter the skin, and a serious infection can develop quickly. It’s common for chickenpox blisters to be close together and when the staph infection penetrates the skin, the skin around the infected area simply dies and falls off.
This story is one of many recounted in the fact sheets series, Diseases & the Vaccines that Prevent Them.
For other true stories, see Vaccines: Unprotected Stories.
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