Two important chickenpox facts (that you probably didn’t know)

This blog is written by our clinicians and aims to keep patients informed with up to date information on medical conditions. The editor of the blog is Dr Cristina Romete.

Many know about chickenpox being a common infectious disease of childhood but few know these really interesting and useful facts.

Today’s blog post will briefly touch on what is important to know about chickenpox but more than that we’ll discuss:

  • How you can find out if you are immune to chickenpox (if you’re uncertain whether you’ve had it before in childhood)
  • How to stop yourself or your child from developing chickenpox (or reduce the severity of the disease) once you or they have been in contact with someone with chickenpox or shingles

Quick chickenpox facts

Chickenpox is very common in the UK. So common that 90% of adults will have had it in childhood. It is however now considered uncommon in the US and other countries around the world who have been vaccinating against it for the past couple of decades.

In the UK the chickenpox vaccine is not currently part of routine immunisations and can only be purchased privately for the majority of the public.

Chickenpox is caused by a virus called Varicella Zoster. People are infectious 2 days before the classic spots come on and typically they continue to remain infectious until 5 days later (or until all the spots have scabbed over).

Although typically called a “minor illness of childhood”, many of us will remember having suffered with the unpleasant itchy rash and it is the cause of much time off school for children and off work for their parents/carers.

More than the aforementioned inconvenience, however, is the fact that not all cases are indeed so minor. On top of the unpleasantness of scarring and risk of superimposed infection of the rash which can be very serious, chickenpox can also cause:

  • Pneumonia (chest infection)
  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
  • Toxic shock syndrome
  • Sepsis

The above complications are more common in adults than children and especially in susceptible groups of people including those that are immunocompromised (cancer/HIV etc), pregnant women who have never had chickenpox, newborns and infants whose mothers have never had chickenpox/the vaccine and people taking steroids regularly.

Question is, if you’re an adult and thus more likely to suffer complications or a woman planning pregnancy…how do you know for sure if you’ve had chickenpox before? Many can’t recall whether they’ve definitely had it (and often nor can their parents!).

Checking if you’ve had chickenpox before

With a simple blood test (for Varicella Zoster antibodies) it is possible to tell whether you’ve had chickenpox in the past. Having had it in the past you are likely to be immune to it and therefore incredibly unlikely to catch it again when exposed to someone with chickenpox or shingles.

Checking immunity would be for example advisable if planning a pregnancy (many pregnant women come in contact with young children infected with chickenpox, whether it be older children or at playgroups etc) or if you are an adult that is unsure whether you’ve had chickenpox before.

You can then have the vaccination done at any time (ideally however at least 1 month prior to trying to become pregnant if female).

The chickenpox vaccine

The vaccine comprises of 2 shots, the second to be given at least 4 weeks after the first. 2 doses provide 98% protection in children (and 75% in adolescents and adults).

The minority that will still go on to catch chickenpox despite vaccination get chickenpox far more mildly, with less lesions and far less complications.

The vaccine is suitable for most children and adults over the age of 1. If you have any questions about the vaccine and its suitability, don’t hesitate to send us a message via the website or give us a call to discuss it.

My child has been exposed to chickenpox, can I prevent it from coming on by giving the vaccine?

This is something that very few people are aware of. The answer is yes!

Getting vaccinated AFTER you are exposed to someone with chickenpox can:

  • prevent the disease or make it less serious
  • protect you from chickenpox if you are exposed again in the future

So if you (or your child) do not have immunity against chickenpox (or are unsure whether you do) and are exposed to someone with chickenpox or shingles, you may be able to receive the chickenpox vaccine and it should help. Ideally, the vaccine should be given within 3 to 5 days of being exposed to chickenpox, so it is important to call us as soon as you can.

If you/your child previously received one dose of chickenpox vaccine but never had the second dose, you should get a second dose.

Vaccination after exposure is not a suitable option for everybody however – so please make sure you speak to a doctor first if you have any concerns about exposure to chickenpox as there is also medication (VZIG) that can be prescribed to make chickenpox less severe in specific cases (i.e. pregnant women, immunosuppressed people, neonates, anaphylaxis to the vaccine or its components).

If you have any questions about chickenpox vaccination or would like to book an appointment to have the blood test to check for immunity or to have the vaccine, contact us via the website or give us a call.

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