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chickenpox vaccine

Alternative Names 
varicella vaccine

The chickenpox vaccine is given to prevent chickenpox in children and adults. Vaccines contain weakened or dead germs that cause certain diseases. To fight these germs, the body's immune system creates antibodies. Antibodies are cells that attack foreign substances in the body. A vaccine causes the body to makes antibodies to the weakened germs in the vaccine. Some of these antibodies will stay in the body for long periods of time. How long they remain depends on which vaccine a person gets. If the person is later exposed to the disease, the antibodies multiply to fight it off.

chickenpox is usually a childhood illness, but it can occur at any age. It is most common in children 6 years to 12 years old. The illness usually lasts 4 to 5 days, and causes mild symptoms. There is a rash with as many as 250 to 500 itchy bumps, or vesicles. Other symptoms are fatigue and a low-grade fever.

Some people have serious, sometimes fatal, complications from the disease. People who are at higher risk for these complications include:
  • people with weakened immune systems
  • infants under 1 year of age
  • adolescents and adults
  • newborns and premature babies whose mothers had chickenpox when they were born or have not had chickenpox
  • children who are given aspirin
These serious complications include:
  • severe skin infections
  • scarring from the pox
  • pneumonia, which is an infection of the lungs
  • brain damage
  • death
The chickenpox vaccine protects against both these complications and the discomfort of mild symptoms. The vaccine can prevent chickenpox in most cases. Anyone who gets chickenpox despite receiving the vaccine usually has only a mild case.

Who is a candidate for the procedure? 
Whilst chicken pox vaccine has not been include in the standard childhood immunisation schedule, the National Health and Medical Research Council recommends its use for:
  • infants from 12 months of age (provided this does not discourage parents from having their child immunised with the schedule vaccines)
  • non-immune adolescents and adults
  • people in high-risk occupations (e.g. health-care workers, teachers and workers in child care centres)
  • non-immune women prior to pregnancy
  • non-immune parents of young children
  • non-immune household contacts of immunosupressed people
Children under the age of 13 years old should be given 1 dose of the vaccine. Someone who is at least 13 years old and has not had chickenpox should receive 2 doses of the vaccine, 4 to 8 weeks apart. Many schools, day care centres, and colleges require the vaccine or a report of a history of Chickenpox before enrollment.

Varicella vaccine is recommended for anyone in certain high-risk groups if they have not already had chickenpox. These high-risk groups include:
  • people who live or work where exposure to chickenpox is likely, such as teachers of young children, day care employees, and residents and staff in institutional settings
  • people who live or work where outbreaks of chickenpox can occur, such as college students, prison inmates and staff, and military personnel
  • non-pregnant women of childbearing age
  • adolescents and adults living in households with children, since the children may pass chickenpox to them
A person in these high-risk groups should talk with his or her doctor about whether he or she should get the chickenpox vaccine. Other people who should consult with their doctors before receiving the vaccine include:
  • people with weakened immune systems, such those who have HIV or cancer, or who take medications like steroids or chemotherapy
  • people who are allergic to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin
  • pregnant women
  • people who are currently ill
How is the procedure performed? 
The chickenpox vaccine is given by an injection into the subcutaneous tissue of the upper thigh or arm. This vaccination may be given at the same time as other vaccinations, but in a different spot on the body.

What happens right after the procedure? 
The site of the chickenpox vaccine injection may sting slightly. A bandage is usually put on it to stop any minor bleeding that may occur.

What happens later at home? 
The chickenpox vaccine is very safe. Severe allergic reactions are very rare. But it is important to call a doctor right away if the person has any new or worsening symptoms.

What are the potential complications after the procedure? 
Chickenpox itself is far more likely to cause serious problems for people at high risk than the vaccine is. Possible side effects of the vaccination include: Author: 
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.

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