Varicella (Chickenpox)

Fast Facts For Your Patients Varicella Zoster Continuing Education

Fast Facts

  • Chickenpox is a very contagious disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), and spread through the air or by contact with blister fluid.
  • It causes a severe, blister-like rash, itching, tiredness, and fever; it can lead to severe infection, scars, pneumonia, brain damage, and death.
  • Two doses of the vaccine are about 90% effective at preventing chickenpox.
  • A person who has had chickenpox is at a greater risk of contracting shingles in the future.

National Immunization Survey Data:
Percent Children 19-35 Months Who Have Received > 1 Varicella
(2020 Goal: 90.0%)



For Your Patients

Fact Sheet: English | Spanish
Varicella Vaccine Information Statement: English | Spanish
MMRV Vaccine Information Statement: English | Spanish
Chickenpox Infographic: CHOP

Varicella (Chickenpox)

From the CDC’s Pink Book:

Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV) is a DNA virus and is a member of the herpesvirus group. Like other herpesviruses, VZV has the capacity to persist in the body after the primary (first) infection as a latent infection. VZV persists in sensory nerve ganglia. Primary infection with VZV results in chickenpox. Herpes zoster (shingles) is the result of reactivation of latent VZV infection. The virus is believed to have a short survival time in the environment.

VZV enters through the respiratory tract and conjunctiva. The virus is believed to replicate at the site of entry in the nasopharynx and in regional lymph nodes. A primary viremia occurs 4 to 6 days after infection and disseminates the virus to other organs, such as the liver, spleen, and sensory ganglia. Further replication occurs in the viscera, followed by a secondary viremia, with viral infection of the skin. Virus can be cultured from mononuclear cells of an infected person from 5 days before to 1 or 2 days after the appearance of the rash.

The incubation period is 14 to 16 days after exposure, with a range of 10 to 21 days. The incubation period may be prolonged in immunocompromised patients and those who have received postexposure treatment with a varicella antibody–containing product.The incubation period is 14 to 16 days after exposure, with a range of 10 to 21 days. The incubation period may be prolonged in immunocompromised patients and those who have received postexposure treatment with a varicella antibody–containing product.

A mild prodrome may precede the onset of a rash. Adults may have 1 to 2 days of fever and malaise prior to rash onset, but in children the rash is often the first sign of disease.

In individuals who have not been vaccinated with varicella vaccine, the rash is generalized and pruritic and progresses rapidly from macules to papules to vesicular lesions before crusting. The rash usually appears first on the head, then on the trunk, and then the extremities; the highest concentration of lesions is on the trunk. Lesions also can occur on mucous membranes of the oropharynx, respiratory tract, vagina, conjunctiva, and the cornea. Lesions are usually 1 to 4 mm in diameter. The vesicles are superficial and delicate and contain clear fluid on an erythematous base. Vesicles may rupture or become purulent before they dry and crust. Successive crops appear over several days, with lesions present in several stages of development.

Breakthrough varicella is defined as a case of varicella due to infection with wild-type VZV occurring more than 42 days after varicella vaccination. With decreasing incidence of varicella overall and increasing varicella vaccination coverage, more than half of varicella cases reported in the varicella active surveillance sites in 2010 were breakthrough varicella. In clinical trials, breakthrough varicella was substantially less severe with the median number of skin lesions commonly less than 50; vesicular lesions are less common and the lesions are commonly papules that do not progress to vesicles. Varicella in vaccinated persons is typically shorter in duration and has a lower incidence of fever than in unvaccinated persons. Breakthrough varicella has been reported in both one- and two-dose vaccine recipients.

The clinical course in healthy children is generally mild, with malaise, pruritus (itching), and temperature up to 102°F for 2 to 3 days. Adults may have more severe disease and have a higher incidence of complications. Respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms are absent. Children with lymphoma and leukemia may develop a severe progressive form of varicella characterized by high fever, extensive vesicular eruption, and high complication rates. Children infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) also may have severe, prolonged illness.

Recovery from primary varicella infection usually results in lifetime immunity. In otherwise healthy persons, a second occurrence of chickenpox is not common, but it can happen, particularly in immunocompromised persons. As with other viral diseases, reexposure to natural (wild) varicella may lead to reinfection that boosts antibody titers without causing clinical illness or detectable viremia.

Herpes Zoster (Shingles)

Herpes zoster, or shingles, occurs when latent VZV reactivates and causes recurrent disease. The immunologic mechanism that controls latency of VZV is not well understood. However, factors associated with recurrent disease include aging, immunosuppression, intrauterine exposure to VZV, and having had varicella at a young age (younger than 18 months). In immunocompromised persons, zoster may disseminate, causing generalized skin lesions and central nervous system, pulmonary, and hepatic involvement.

The vesicular eruption of zoster generally occurs unilaterally in the distribution of a sensory nerve. Most often, this involves the trunk or the fifth cranial nerve. Two to four days prior to the eruption, there may be pain and paresthesia in the involved area. There are few systemic symptoms.

Continuing Education

You Call The Shots: Varicella (exp 8/08/2018)
CDC: Varicella & Shingles Overview: English (8/02/2013)