Chickenpox Vaccine for Grown-Ups, Too

If you’re an adult, chances are you had chickenpox when you were a kid. But if you didn’t, maybe you should think about getting the chicken pox vaccine.

The chickenpox vaccine became available in the United States in 1995 and since then has been mostly regarded as a vaccine for children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians recommend all children be routinely vaccinated between 12 and 18 months of age and that all susceptible children – those with weak immune systems – receive the vaccine before their 13th birthday.

The CDC also recommends the chickenpox (also called varicella) vaccine for susceptible teenagers and adults, especially health care workers. But information presented at an annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America suggests even healthy adults who managed to escape chickenpox as a child could benefit from the vaccine. That’s because adults are more likely to have a more serious case of chickenpox with a higher rate of complications.

Getting chickenpox can be serious

“Older people are more susceptible to complications of chickenpox, such as pneumonia and central nervous system infections,” says Krow Ampofo, M.D., fellow in pediatric infectious diseases, Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, who presented results of a study at the meeting. “Yet, individuals in this age group are less likely to be vaccinated than children.”

Chickenpox, which is caused by the varicella zoster virus, is mostly known for its characteristic itchy rash, which then forms blisters that dry and become scabs in four to five days. The virus is spread from person to person by direct contact or through the air. About 90 percent of people in a household who have not had chickenpox will get it if exposed to an infected family member.

Symptoms of chickenpox may begin at any time within seven to 21 days after exposure, with most cases appearing between 14 and 17 days.

How effective is the vaccine?

The chickenpox vaccine has been shown to be less effective than other children’s vaccinations. In fact, about 10 percent to 30 percent of children who receive the vaccination do not become immune to chickenpox.

Ampofo studied 557 vaccinated adults ages 22 to 46. Of that group, 43 (8 percent) developed chickenpox.

The chickenpox vaccine has been proven to be highly effective in protecting against severe chickenpox, and Ampofo says that also was borne out in his study.

“Among those who did contract chickenpox, the disease was generally mild,” he says.

Some people who get chickenpox suffer from complications, such as fluids (dehydration), pneumonia, meningitis, inflammation of the heart or Reye’s syndrome.

None of the adults in Ampofo’s study had significant adverse effects from the vaccination itself. “A few developed mild rashes within six weeks that went away without complications,” Ampofo says.