What is the Varicella Vaccine? (with pictures)

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
A small syringe and vaccine vial.
A small syringe and vaccine vial.

The varicella vaccine works to prevent chickenpox virus. This is a common childhood illness that can become very serious in some individuals and that poses additional risk for adults as they age. Due to this risk, and the possibility of complications from getting a natural case of chickenpox, most doctors’ organizations recommend vaccination with the varicella vaccine in childhood.

A boy with chickenpox, which is caused by varicella zoster.
A boy with chickenpox, which is caused by varicella zoster.

Despite this recommendation, there are some people who shouldn’t get this vaccine. It is what is called a live attenuated virus, when means there is slight risk that the disease will develop from the vaccine. This occurs about 2% of the time, and is more likely in people who have any form of immunosuppression. Even when the virus occurs, doctors are quick to point out that it is usually milder than infection with the wild virus, and the infection itself may confer immunity to chickenpox, though not shingles, for life. Another group of people who should likely not have this vaccination include those allergic to eggs, neomycin or certain types of gels, as elements of these are present in the vaccine.

A blood test determines if a person has already been exposed to the chickenpox virus.
A blood test determines if a person has already been exposed to the chickenpox virus.

It used to be the case that the varicella vaccine was given on its own to kids that were about 12 months old. Additional boosters remain needed to maintain immunity. In recent times, and to cut down on the number of immunizations required, varicella vaccine has been combined with the measles, mumps, rubella shot. This is now called the MMRV. It’s still possible to separate the two shots or receive the chickenpox vaccine alone if MMR shots have already been given. The grouping of the four vaccines tends to make sense, though, since they are all given on approximately the same schedule.

Chickenpox can be prevented with the varicella vaccine.
Chickenpox can be prevented with the varicella vaccine.

There are generally few side effects to the varicella vaccine, aside from the occasional case of chickenpox that may result from it. In some cases, kids get a small rash right around the shot area, and this could be present for a few days. It is not the blisters associated with chicken pox or a case of the illness. Should someone have a severe reaction to the vaccine, they should not take another booster dose of it at a later point. This could prove very dangerous and reaction to the shot should be notated in medical charts.

Adults who never had the varicella vaccine as children and never contracted chickenpox are at a higher risk for complications of the disease.
Adults who never had the varicella vaccine as children and never contracted chickenpox are at a higher risk for complications of the disease.

One way in which the vaccine is used is as a preventative. Someone with no immunity to chickenpox, who is suddenly exposed to it, may be able to avoid manifesting the disease with vaccination. Studies show that at least 70% of people exposed to chickenpox avoid getting it if they get the varicella vaccine right away. This use is a bit unorthodox and doctors tend to favor a more predictable vaccination schedule, and yet it is something to consider if people haven’t had the vaccine and suddenly are exposed to the illness.

Today, the varicella vaccine is routinely given to children before they start school.
Today, the varicella vaccine is routinely given to children before they start school.

One area of confusion for many people is the difference between the varicella and shingles vaccine. The shingle vaccine or Zostavax® is designed for people who have had chickenpox or the varicella vaccine and who are 60 or older. Folks who meet these criteria are now advised by many government health agencies to get this vaccine. What won’t be effective to prevent shingles is getting the varicella vaccine, unless people have never had chickenpox. In this case, the chickenpox vaccine could be a better choice, and if required, people might have the shingle vaccine at a later point.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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    • A small syringe and vaccine vial.
      A small syringe and vaccine vial.
    • A boy with chickenpox, which is caused by varicella zoster.
      A boy with chickenpox, which is caused by varicella zoster.
    • A blood test determines if a person has already been exposed to the chickenpox virus.
      A blood test determines if a person has already been exposed to the chickenpox virus.
    • Chickenpox can be prevented with the varicella vaccine.
      Chickenpox can be prevented with the varicella vaccine.
    • Adults who never had the varicella vaccine as children and never contracted chickenpox are at a higher risk for complications of the disease.
      Adults who never had the varicella vaccine as children and never contracted chickenpox are at a higher risk for complications of the disease.
    • Today, the varicella vaccine is routinely given to children before they start school.
      Today, the varicella vaccine is routinely given to children before they start school.