Chickenpox (varicella) is a common childhood illness. Almost every child has gotten it by age 10. It is very contagious. You don’t have to even touch a skin lesion to get the disease. It can be spread in the air from person to person. In fact some parents I have known have taken their children to a home with a child that has the chickenpox in hopes their children will get it. They do this knowing that getting chickenpox as a child is a much milder disease than when they are older. Adults who get the chickenpox can develop some very serious and life-threatening complications. Why this happens I don’t know, but this is common for a number of viral diseases. Chickenpox is caused by a virus called the Varicella-Zoster Virus. When a person gets this virus they have it for life. Sometimes it comes back to cause problems later in life. A disease called the shingles (Zoster) is common in elderly people or people with suppressed immune systems. This diseases begins with severe pain and tenderness usually around one side of the rib cage (although it can occur anywhere). In a day or two redness develops over the area of pain and eventually fluid filled bumps develop (the classic chickenpox lesion). Unfortunately, this illness doesn’t go away as rapidly as the chickenpox and can result in long term pain for some people.
Since the chickenpox is not acquired by every child and the complications associated with acquiring this virus later in life can be very severe researchers have developed a vaccine. This vaccine contains a live Varicella-Zoster Virus that can not give you the disease but can trick your immune system into thinking you have the chickenpox. As a result it protects you from getting the chickenpox. It does not protect you from getting shingles. It is currently recommmended for any child over one year of age that does not have evidence of having already gotten the chickenpox.
This vaccine could also be given to anyone over the age of 13 that does not have any evidence of having gotten chickenpox. There are exceptions to this rule. If you are pregnant or have a suppressed immune system you should not get this vaccine. Live viral vaccines should not be given to pregnant women for fear of infecting the baby. Immunosuppressed (chemotherapy patients, AIDS patients, patients getting corticosteriods (prenidsone)) should not get live viral vaccines because the virus although wimpy could cause serious infection in people with poor immune responses. Think of it this way. Even a child can break in to a house when the doors are wide