Chickenpox (also known as varicella) is an illness caused by the varicella-zoster virus. You can protect your child from chickenpox with a vaccine.
What are the symptoms of chickenpox?
Chickenpox sometimes starts with a fever and aches and pains. Most children also lose their appetite and have a headache during the first few days. Usually these symptoms are not severe.
In many children, the first sign of illness is the rash. The rash is usually itchy and makes your child uncomfortable. It appears on the scalp and face, spreading quickly down the body and onto the arms and legs. The spots start as flat pink spots that turn into small water blisters. New flat pink spots will form even after others turn into blisters. Some children have only a few blisters. Others can have as many as 500. These blisters dry up and form scabs in 4 or 5 days.
How is chickenpox spread?
Chickenpox is highly contagious and spreads very quickly:
- Through the air when someone with chickenpox coughs or sneezes.
- Through direct contact with the virus by touching a blister or the liquid from a blister.
- From the saliva of a person who has chickenpox.
A pregnant woman with chickenpox can pass it to her baby before birth. A mother with chickenpox can also give it to her baby.
Can chickenpox cause bigger problems?
- Babies who get chickenpox from their mothers before birth could be born with birth defects. Some examples of these birth defects are skin scars, eye problems or arms and legs that are not fully formed.
- Chickenpox can be very severe or even life-threatening to babies in the first month of life, to adults and to anyone who has a weak immune system.
- Children with chickenpox can get pneumonia (infection of the lungs) or have problems with other organs inside the body, such as the brain.
- The blisters can get infected with bacteria. If the blisters get infected, your child can end up with lifelong scars. Though most of these infections are minor and clear up on their own, some can lead to a serious illness called necrotizing fasciitis (or “flesh-eating disease”).
Who should get the chickenpox vaccine?
- Children should get 2 shots for chickenpox: the first when they are 12 to 18 months old and a second “booster” shot when they are 4 to 6 years old.
- Teens (13 years and older) who have never had chickenpox should get 2 shots, at least 4 weeks apart.
How safe is the chickenpox vaccine?
It is very safe.
- With any vaccine, there may be some redness, swelling or pain at the place where the needle went into the arm or leg. This is not dangerous and will only last a day or two.
- Some people will get a very mild case of chickenpox (less than 50 spots) 1 or 2 weeks after they get the vaccine.
- The chickenpox vaccine can be given at the same time as, or combined with, the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine.
Who should NOT have the chickenpox vaccine?
- Babies less than 1 year old.
- People with weak immune systems and/or people who are taking drugs to suppress their immune system.
- Women who are trying to get pregnant. However, if you get the vaccine before you know you are pregnant, your baby will almost certainly be fine.
- People who are allergic to or have had a bad reaction to something in the vaccine.
- People who have had chickenpox after they are 1 year of age do not need to get the vaccine. They are most likely immune to the illness now. If they do get the vaccine, it will not hurt them.
Where can I get the vaccine for my child?
Talk to your doctor about the vaccine. In some provinces, the chickenpox vaccine is given by itself or combined with the MMR vaccine (the combination vaccine is called MMR-V).
The first dose is covered by all provincial and territorial health plans, but in some places you may have to pay for the booster dose.
For complete information on vaccinations in Canada, read Your Child's Best Shot: A Parent's Guide to Vaccination.
Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
Infectious Diseases and Immunization Committee
Last updated: August 2011