Chicken Pox



About Chicken Pox

The disease - transmission and symptoms

  • Chicken pox (varicella) is a highly contagious viral infection. It is spread through direct contact with virus shedding from the characteristic skin lesions, in oral secretions or via airborne spread. Individuals with varicella can spread infection from 1-2 days prior to the onset of the rash until the last lesion has crusted (approximately six days later).
  • The time from exposure to the development of symptoms (incubation period) is usually 10-21 days. The symptoms of chicken pox may include the sudden onset of fever and malaise followed 24-36 hours later by a series of lesions (small red bumps) that progress to thin-walled water blisters (resembling drops of dew). These lesions will then crust over. Lesions generally appear in successive crops. The lesions are more abundant on the parts of the body that are usually covered and may also appear on the scalp, in the mouth, nose, ears and genitals.
  • If you have these symptoms, stay home so you don't expose others. The duration of the illness is variable, but people can generally return to their regular functions seven days after the onset of the rash. In the majority of otherwise healthy individuals, chicken pox resolves without complications. Call the Advice Nurse at (510) 643-7197 to discuss your situation. You may benefit from antiviral medication to reduce symptoms.


  • For non-immune individuals who have been exposed to varicella, vaccination may be effective in preventing disease if taken within 3-5 days of exposure. Chicken Pox Vaccine given pre-exposure is also available to decrease the risk of contracting chicken pox. The vaccine is available at the Tang Center, see "Related Services" below. Click here for more information on the vaccine.

For relief of symptoms

  • Antiviral medication such as Acyclovir can decrease the severity of symptoms if used within 48 hours of the onset of rash.
  • Passive immunization with varicella immune globulin may be considered in limited cases such as the immune compromised or the newly pregnant.
  • Drink plenty of fluids and get lots of rest.
  • For fever, take acetaminophen (Tylenol, Panadol, etc), if not allergic. Do not use aspirin or products containing aspirin.
  • For relaxing comfort, take cool baths with Aveeno®, or place oatmeal in a small nylon bag or stocking, which when wet, releases a suspension that soothes the skin.
  • Calamine lotion may also be helpful to relieve itching and irritation.
  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl®) 25mg (available without a prescription), 1 or 2 every 4-6 hours, can help the itching but can cause drowsiness which may hamper performance.
  • Wear loose, comfortable clothing.


  • Severe complications are not common but in some adults chicken pox may result in serious illness.
  • Bacteria may infect skin lesions. Avoid scratching lesions.
  • Lesions in the throat may cause swallowing or breathing difficulties.
  • Pneumonia or encephalitis may be a complication in severe cases.
  • Persistent symptoms, such as fever, joint pain, abdominal pain, head or neck ache should be reported to your clinician.
  • Immunocompromised individuals should contact their health care provider as soon as they know they're been exposed to chickenpox.
  • Pregnant women in the first two trimesters of pregnancy who have not had chicken pox may be at increased risk for more serious illness. There is a small risk the virus may affect the developing fetus. Call your prenatal clinician if you are pregnant and think you have been exposed to chickenpox.

Additional online resources

Related services at the Tang Center

For Students:

  • Advice Nurse: (510) 643-7197
  • Appointments: (510) 642-2000
  • Immunization: (510) 643-7177. The vaccine is not a covered benefit under the Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP).

Self Care Resource Center: (510) 642-7202

For Faculty and Staff:
Please refer questions to your health plan or primary care provider.
Immunization: (510) 643-7177 (Fee-for-service)

Disclaimer: The information provided here is not intended to diagnose, treat or provide a second opinion on any health problem or disease. It is meant to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between an individual and his/her clinician.

Last revised: September 2005

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Chicken Pox Vaccine Information

About the vaccine

  • The chicken pox vaccine is a live attenuated virus. It is available for individuals 12 months and older. A booster, 4-8 weeks after the initial dose, is recommended for adolescents and adults to ensure more continued immunity. The duration of protection following vaccination with Varivax is unknown at present but would appear to be at least 10 years.
  • Varivax, given immediately following exposure to a natural chicken pox infection, may prevent illness if given to susceptible persons within 3-5 days. If exposure results in infection, no evidence indicates that administration of the vaccine increases the risk for vaccine-associated adverse events and the illness is usually very mild.

A vaccine, like any medicine, is capable of causing serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions but serious reactions to the vaccine are rare. Some people do have minor problems that may include:

  • Pain and redness at the site of the injection
  • Mild rash
  • Seizure caused by high fever (1 out of 1,000 or less)
  • Pneumonia (very rare)
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Body aches
  • Hived
  • Upper respiratory symptoms

Tylenol can be taken for fever, headache and body aches. Avoid aspirin and aspirin containing products for 6 weeks after vaccination. If reactions are more severe (shortness of breath, hives), please contact the University Health Services or your health care provider. If you develop a rash, avoid close contact with susceptible individuals (newborns, pregnant women and immune compromised persons) for the duration of the rash.

The vaccine should not be taken if you have any of the following conditions:

  • You are allergic to any component of the vaccine including gelatin.
  • You are severely allergic to neomycin.
  • You had a severe allergic reaction to a previous dose of chickenpox vaccine
  • You should postpone vaccination if you have a fever due to a cold, or other infection.
  • You should not be vaccinated if you are pregnant, and pregnancy should be avoided for three months after the vaccine is given.

You should check with your healthcare provider about whether to get the chickenpox vaccine if you have:

  • HIV/AIDS or another disease that affects the immune system including cancer.
  • Are being treated with any drugs that affect the immune system such as steroids, for 2 weeks or longer or taking drugs for the treatment of any cancer.
  • Had a recent blood transfusion .

A nurse will screen each individual prior to giving the vaccine and monitor any immediate reaction.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is not intended to diagnose, treat or provide a second opinion on any health problem or disease. It is meant to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between an individual and his/her clinician.

Last revised: September 2005

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