Written by SMH Digital Content Editor Ann Key
Most adults are familiar with “chickenpox,” and those born before 1990 likely have first-hand experience with the frustratingly itchy, highly contagious viral infection.
A once-common early childhood disease, chickenpox is characterized by an itchy, bumpy rash with small, fluid-filled blisters that eventually turn to scabs and are accompanied by fever, headache and/or fatigue. Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus and is easily passed from person to person through airborne exposure (coughs and sneezes) or direct contact with the rash. Most people only experience chickenpox once, and after contracting the virus, they have a lifetime immunity to it.
Before the US began vaccinating kids against chickenpox, well-intentioned parents exposed children to the virus through so-called “chickenpox parties.” These pox parties — popular in the ’70s and ’80s — were basically playdates where healthy children spent time with a child with chickenpox to deliberately infect them with virus, so they could develop immunity sooner rather than later as contracting chickenpox as an adult can be much more severe than as a child.
With the US adoption of the chickenpox vaccine in 1995, incidence of the virus declined and chickenpox parties fell out of favor. However, there’s been a somewhat controversial resurgence of pox parties in recent years as some parents opt for the “natural exposure,” rather than having a child vaccinated against the viral infection.
Pediatrician Jose Tavarez, MD, with Sarasota Memorial’s First Physicians Group Lakewood Ranch office, cautions against intentionally exposing your child to chickenpox in lieu of having him/her vaccinated. While most cases of chickenpox are mild, the infection can be serious and can lead to significant health complications.
“Even though chickenpox could have a benign course in healthy children, it can be very serious, leading to different complications like pneumonia, bacterial infection of the skin and soft tissues, blood stream infection (sepsis), brain infection (encephalitis), among other things that could result in death,” Tavarez explained. “The best way to prevent and protect your children against varicella-zoster virus is getting them vaccinated.”
The chickenpox vaccine is a safe, effective way to prevent chickenpox and any potential complications. Recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccine uses a weakened version of the virus to build up the person's immunity to it.
“Children should receive two doses of the chickenpox vaccine; the first dose at 12 to 15 months old and a second dose at 4 to 6 years old,” Tavarez advised. Unvaccinated older children, and even adults who’ve never had chickenpox, should be vaccinated as well.
If you’re unsure about the vaccine for yourself or a child, talk to your doctor or pediatrician.
Chickenpox exposure is dangerous for newborns or children and adults who are high risk for developing complications; this includes infants, pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems and anyone older than 13 who has not yet had chickenpox.
Ann Key manages Sarasota Memorial’s Healthe-Matters blog and digital newsletter, as well as other social media and wellness content channels. If you have a health question you need answered or a wellness topic you'd like an SMH expert to weigh in on, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.