Chickenpox (Varicella)

[chik-uh n-poks]

Boy with chickenpox and fever

Chickenpox is a contagious disease caused by the varicella zoster virus. The virus spreads mainly by touching or breathing in the virus particles that come from chickenpox blisters, and possibly through tiny droplets from infected people that get into the air after they breathe or talk, for example. Symptoms of chickenpox include an itchy rash, fever, and tiredness. The disease can be serious – even fatal – especially for babies, adolescents, adults, pregnant women and people with a weakened immune system. The best protection against chickenpox is two doses of the chickenpox vaccine. Most people who get the vaccine will not get chickenpox. If a vaccinated person does get chickenpox, the symptoms are usually milder with fewer or no blisters (they may have just red spots) and mild or no fever.

Quiz

Key Facts

  • Chickenpox is a very contagious disease that is caused by varicella zoster virus.
  • The classic symptom of chickenpox is a blister-like rash. You can have between 250 and 500 blisters all over your body.
  • Before the vaccine was available, about 4 million people in the United States would get chickenpox each year.
  • You can still get chickenpox if you have been vaccinated; however, the symptoms are usually milder, with fewer or no blisters (sometimes just red spots) and mild or no fever.
  • CDC recommends two doses of chickenpox vaccine. If you previously got one dose, make sure to get a second one.

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Chickenpox Symptoms
Chickenpox Transmission

It takes from 10 to 21 days after exposure to a person with chickenpox or shingles for someone to develop chickenpox. A person with chickenpox can spread the disease from 1 to 2 days before they get the rash, until all their chickenpox blisters have formed scabs.

Doctor consulting with patient
Chickenpox Can Be Serious

Complications from chickenpox include infection of skin and soft tissues underneath, pneumonia, infection or inflammation of the brain, bleeding problems, and dehydration. Some people may be at high risk for complications, including infants, adolescents, adults, pregnant women, and those with a weakened immune system. Complications are not as common in otherwise healthy people who get chickenpox but can happen.

Group of children in circle
How It Spreads

The virus spreads mainly by touching or breathing in the virus particles that come from chickenpox blisters, and possibly through tiny droplets from infected people that get into the air after they breathe or talk, for example.

Mother's hand holding child's hand
If You Get Chickenpox

Calamine lotion and colloidal oatmeal baths can help relieve an itchy chickenpox rash. Keep fingernails trimmed short to help prevent skin infections caused by scratching blisters. For fever, you can use non-aspirin medication, such as acetaminophen. Call a doctor if you’re at risk for severe chickenpox or you’re concerned about your symptoms.

Girl with grandparents
The Link to Shingles

After you recover from chickenpox, the virus that causes this disease stays in your body. Later in life, the virus can reactive and cause shingles. If you have shingles, you can spread the virus to people who have never had chickenpox or never got the chickenpox vaccine. These people will develop chickenpox, not shingles.

Prevention Tips

  • Chickenpox vaccine is very effective at preventing severe disease, complications, and death.
  • Children, adolescents, and adults should get two doses of the chickenpox vaccine.
    • Children should get the first dose of chickenpox vaccine at 12 through 15 months old and a second dose at 4 through 6 years old.
    • People 13 years and older who have never had chickenpox or received chickenpox vaccine should get two doses at least 28 days apart. If you previously got one dose, make sure to get your second one.
  • When you get vaccinated, you protect yourself and others in your community. This is especially important for people who cannot get vaccinated, such as those with a weakened immune system, babies less than 12 months old, or pregnant women.
  • Some people should wait to get vaccinated or should not get vaccinated at all. This includes pregnant women and those with a severely weakened immune system.
  • Talk to your doctor if you have questions about chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine.
Page last reviewed: August 26, 2019