Chickenpox (varicella zoster) vaccine
What is it for?
This vaccine protects you against the chickenpox virus (varicella zoster).
If you or your child have not been vaccinated against chickenpox, or have not had the infection, and you come into direct contact with someone who does have chickenpox or shingles, you can become infected and develop chickenpox.
Chickenpox is an illness that many adults will have experienced in childhood. The symptoms of chickenpox include:
Many people are exposed to the chickenpox virus in childhood.
Image: Jaren Jai Wicklund/Shutterstock.com
- a slight fever
- runny nose
- feeling unwell
- a rash of red spots all over the body.
These symptoms usually appear about 2 weeks after you have been infected with the virus. The rash usually begins as small red spots that turn into blisters and then scabs.
You are able to spread the chicken pox virus from a day or two before the rash appears up until all your spots have scabbed over. This is why it is important to stay away from other people, especially pregnant women, or people with a weakened immune system or being treated for cancers, until your spots have completely scabbed over.
Complications of chickenpox
Complications of chickenpox include:
- bacterial skin infections
- swelling of the membranes covering the brain (aseptic meningitis)
- decrease in blood platelet cell (thrombocytopenia)
- may have a short term effect on movement (acute cerebellar ataxia)
- foetal abnormalities in pregnant women (see below)
- encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
Who should be vaccinated?
The chickenpox vaccine is given free as part of the National Immunisation Program to children who are:
- 18 months of age
- 10 to 13 years old and who have not had chickenpox and have not been previously vaccinated.
The chickenpox vaccine will not usually be given to children who:
- are taking high doses of medicines that weaken their immune system
- have a severe condition that weakens their immune system (e.g. HIV infection), making them more susceptible to infection.
Combined chickenpox and MMR vaccine (MMRV) from July 2013
From July 2013, a single combination vaccine that protects against the measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox viruses (MMRV) can be given to children who are 18 months old who have been vaccinated with the MMR vaccine at 12 months, as part of the National Immunisation Program Schedule.
The new MMRV combination vaccine will replace the separate chickenpox vaccine currently given to children who are 18 months old, and the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine currently given to 4 year olds. This will reduce the total number of injections given to children, and will provide a second dose of MMR at the earlier age of 18 months instead of 4 years.
Note: from 1 July 2013 until 31 December 2015, the MMR vaccination will only be given to 4 year old children who have not had the MMRV combination vaccine at 18 months.
Find out more about the MMRV vaccine.
Chickenpox is a very infectious disease, and although it’s usually mild in children, it’s often more severe in adults.
Anyone older than 13 years who has not had chickenpox and has not been vaccinated before should be vaccinated. Especially:
- women of childbearing age who are considering pregnancy
- parents of young children
- people with a weakened immune system (e.g. due to HIV, a medical condition, or certain medcines)
- those who live or work with people whose immune systems are suppressed (such as people with HIV)
- healthcare workers, teachers, and child care workers who are at high risk of being exposed to the chickenpox virus.
Vaccinations for people in these groups are not funded by the National Immunisation Program. Anyone wanting to be vaccinated can do so at their own cost.
The chickenpox vaccination is recommended for all women of childbearing age who are considering pregnancy and who have not had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccination.
If you’re not immune to chickenpox and you get it while you are pregnant, you should seek urgent medical attention. This is because chickenpox infection can affect your unborn baby by causing foetal malformations, skin scarring and other serious problems (congenital varicella syndrome).
Women who are pregnant should not have the chickenpox vaccination.
Women who have recently been vaccinated against chickenpox should wait 28 days before falling pregnant.
Read more information about what vaccines you can have if you are pregnant.
Women who are breastfeeding
There is no known risk to your baby if you have the chickenpox vaccination while you are breastfeeding.
If you have chickenpox when you are breastfeeding, your baby can’t be infected with the chickenpox virus through your breast milk. However, if you still have blisters on your skin, it is possible your baby could develop chickenpox if they come into direct contact with your chickenpox blisters. If you have chickenpox, it is best to avoid direct contact with babies and young children who have never had chickenpox or who have not yet been vaccinated.
If your child has not been vaccinated, but has been exposed to the chickenpox virus by direct contact with you or someone else who has chickenpox or shingles blisters, seek medical advice as soon as possible.
Women who are breastfeeding can be vaccinated with any vaccine except the vaccine for yellow fever.
Common side effects (affecting 1 to 10 in every 100 people) of the chickenpox vaccine include:
- soreness, redness and swelling at the injection site
- a lump that may form at the injection site; this generally disappears after a few weeks and does not need treatment
- fever that doesn’t last long (can be higher than 39°C)
- a mild rash may appear 5 to 26 days after vaccination; the rash is usually at the injection site, but can sometimes appear on other parts of your body.
Read more about vaccine side effects and safety.
Who can I ask about side effects?
If you’re concerned that you or your child may have had side effects related to a vaccine, seek medical advice. To report and discuss possible side effects, call the Adverse Medicines Events (AME) Line on 1300 134 237 from anywhere in Australia (Monday–Friday, 9am–5pm AEST).
- Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Office of Health Protection. 4.22 Varicella. In: The Australian Immunisation Handbook, 10th edn. www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/handbook10-4-22
- Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Immunise Australia Program. Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Varicella (MMRV). www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/immunise-MMRV%20Vaccine
- Rossi S, ed. eAMH [online]. Adelaide: Australian Medicines Handbook, January 2013.