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Guide to the Chickenpox Vaccine

Dianna Graveman |16, January 2012


Just a few decades ago, parents and children had to take their chances with chickenpox. Catching the virus was almost considered a rite of passage. Occasionally, one would even hear reports of parents who intentionally exposed their healthy children to another child who had the disease just "to get it over with," since most kids came down with it at some point, anyway.

Those children who did catch it developed an itchy rash, followed by blisters. They often had a fever. Sometimes the blisters became infected or left scars. Occasionally, a child would become ill enough to be hospitalized due to complications like pneumonia. Fatalities, while rare, did occur.

These days, parents have an option. They can have their child vaccinated with the chickenpox vaccine, which has been routinely administered in the United States since 1995. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 90% of children who receive the vaccine will have complete protection against the illness. Those who catch the virus in spite of having received the vaccine will experience a much less severe case of the chickenpox. Also, the chickenpox vaccine carries some protection against shingles, also caused by the chickenpox virus, in later life. While the chickenpox vaccine will not necessarily keep an adult from developing shingles, the illness is usually less severe in adults who received the vaccine, according to studies, than in those who actually had the disease.

When should my child (or I) get the vaccine?

Children in the United States typically receive their first dose of the vaccine as part of their regular immunization schedule between one year and 15 months. The second dose is administered between ages four and six. Since 2005, the chicken pox vaccine has been combined with the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella.

Seven to twelve year olds who did not receive the vaccination when they were younger can receive two doses three months apart to "catch up." Those who are over the age of 13 and who were never vaccinated can receive their two doses four to eight weeks apart.

According to the Mayo Clinic, adults who did not receive the vaccine and who have never had the chickenpox may want to consider it, especially if they are "health care workers, teachers, child care employees, international travelers, military personnel, or adults who live with young children," as this puts them at a high risk of exposure. A woman who is considering pregnancy should be vaccinated well before becoming pregnant if she has not had the illness, as she can pass the virus to her fetus. A blood test can determine whether you're immune to the virus if you're not sure. Like children, adults receive two doses, four to eight weeks apart.

Adults or children who have had the chickenpox typically do not catch it a second time, so there is no need for the vaccine in those cases. Occasionally, someone is diagnosed with a repeat case of chickenpox, but it is rare and usually a much less severe case than the first time they had it.

Is the chickenpox vaccine safe?

As with any vaccine, parents worry whether it is safe, especially if it is a "live" vaccine. This simply means the chickenpox vaccine contains a live, weakened virus that will cause your body or your child's body to produce an immune response. It will not cause someone to develop the disease. Studies have repeatedly shown that the vaccine holds no danger for most people and that side effects are mild. You or your child might experience redness, slight swelling, and soreness at the site of the injection. A low percentage of people develop a low-grade fever or develop a light rash. Allergic reactions and seizures are rare. Pregnant women should not receive the vaccine, nor should anyone who is allergic to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin. Those with a weakened immune system should also not receive the vaccination. The National Network for Immunization Information states that women should not become pregnant until at least one month after having received the vaccine. Consult with your physician, and always make sure he or she is aware of any allergies or a potential pregnancy.

Dianna Graveman is a St. Louis writer, editor, educator, and mother of three. Her work has appeared in many print and online publications. Visit her website at or her blog at

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