Chicken pox is a hot topic. What once was a rite of passage has become a much maligned and feared rash. Should you be vaccinated? Are you already immune? Here’s more info. . .
Varicella zoster (the chicken pox virus) is one of 8 herpesviruses, yes, “those” herpes viruses. Usually a chicken pox infection causes fever, fatigue and up to 300 pox-like lesions. It is self-limited and resolves spontaneously without treatment. Significant complications like pneumonia, hepatitis and encephalitis (brain inflammation) are more common in adults, pregnant women and those who are immune suppressed.
The varicella vaccine (the chicken pox shot) was introduced in the US in 1995. This is a live, but altered, virus vaccine. CDC guidelines are to give, starting at 12 months of age, two vaccines. Most common schedule is at 12 months and then at the “kindergarten physical” at age 4-6. Adolescents by the age of 13 should have received 2 doses of the vaccine. Adults with ongoing risk of exposure (child or health care workers), women of childbearing age, and those with immunosuppressed houseguests should also receive 2 doses of the vaccine if not already immune (see below).
Pregnant women should not receive the live vaccine until the infant delivers. Interestingly, the immunosuppressed houseguests have not been found to get chicken pox from the newly immunized, unless pox lesions result.
How do you know if you are immune?
- Documentation of two doses of varicella vaccine at least four weeks apart. Keep those pink vaccine records into adulthood!
- History of chicken pox or shingles infection.
- Birth in USA before 1980 (because the infection was so commonplace and contagious).
- Lab confirmation that the immune system has responded to a varicella “sighting.”
In high-risk groups (like health care workers or pregnant women) age alone isn’t enough, blood testing may be needed to show immunity. The risk is that we will become a vector and pass on the infection (to our patients or unborn baby) as contagiousness occurs 48 hours BEFORE the rash develops until all lesions are crusted over.
Be wise. Immunize!