A father holding his child at a family gathering.

Chickenpox is a highly contagious but generally mild infection that can cause complications in some people. Immunisation against chickenpox can help protect against complications and reduce the risk of developing shingles later in life.

Did you know?

  • Chickenpox (varicella) is a highly contagious viral infection that causes red, itchy blisters all over the body.
A young boy with his arm around his younger brother.

What is it?

Varicella, commonly called chickenpox, is a highly contagious infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It usually causes a red, blistering itchy rash all over the body.

Chickenpox is usually a mild disease that lasts a short time in healthy children. Yet it can cause serious complications in adults and people of any age with weakened immune systems. 

After infection, the virus remains 'hidden' in your body and may become active again many years later, causing shingles (herpes zoster). Shingles is more common in older adults and people with weakened immune systems, but it can occur at any age.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms generally occur 10 to 21 days (commonly around 14 to 16 days) after infection. 

The main symptom of chickenpox is a distinct chickenpox rash that covers the body in red, itchy spots which turn into small blisters that then crust over. It usually starts on the head, then moves to the torso, arms and legs.

The infection can be mild, moderate or severe, with a severe case consisting of more than 500 blisters mostly on the torso. Other symptoms of chickenpox may include flu-like symptoms (fever, headache, and sore throat).

Complications, although rare, include bacterial infections of the skin, pneumonia (lung infection), difficulty walking and balancing, meningitis (swelling around the brain and spinal cord) and encephalitis (brain swelling).

This is not a full list of symptoms that can occur following chickenpox infection. Please speak to your doctor if you have any concerns about chickenpox.

How is it spread?

The virus can pass from person to person through the air via coughs or sneezes; or via direct contact with the fluid from chickenpox blisters.

An infected person can spread the virus at least 2 days before they develop the blisters and until the last blister has crusted over. Children with chickenpox should stay home until the last blister has dried.

Who is at risk?

Anyone who is not immunised or who has not previously had chickenpox is at risk of catching the virus. This includes both children and adults. 

Those most at risk of infection and serious complications include:

  • non-immune healthcare workers
  • childcare workers
  • pregnant women (an infection during pregnancy can have serious consequences for the unborn baby, too)
  • newborn babies
  • people with weakened immune systems

Other people may be at risk of chickenpox infection. Please speak to your doctor regarding your individual circumstances.

Who should be vaccinated?

  • The chickenpox vaccine is recommended and provided free for children as part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP). It is usually given as a single dose at 18 months of age in combination with measles, mumps and rubella (MMRV).

    One dose of chickenpox vaccine is effective at preventing moderate to severe cases of chickenpox. A second dose (not part of the NIP) is recommended for increased protection and to reduce the chance of infection in children up to14 years of age.

    Speak to your doctor for more information on chickenpox and immunisation options.

    Immunisation schedule

    •  Immunisation funded via the National Immunisation Program (NIP)
    •  Immunisation recommended by experts but is not funded
    Diseases Birth 2 months 4 months 6 months 12 months 18 months 4 years 10 to <15 years 15-19 years
    Chickenpox (varicella)+                  
    A second dose of varicella vaccine is recommended any time between 4 years of age and less than 14 years, at least 4 weeks after the first dose. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Diphtheria                  
     
    Hepatitis A+                  
    Two doses of Hepatitis A vaccine are recommended and NIP-funded for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children at 12 months and 18 months living in certain areas. A two-dose schedule (which is not funded) is also recommended for some medically at-risk children and adolescents. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Hepatitis B+                  
    An additional booster vaccine is recommended at 12 months of age for preterm infants who were born at less than 32 weeks gestation or whose birth weight was under 2000 grams. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Haemophilus influenzae
    type b (Hib)
                     
     
    Human Papillomavirus (HPV)                  
     
    Measles                  
     
    Meningococcal ACWY disease+                  
    The meningococcal ACWY vaccine is strongly recommended (but not funded) for children less than 2 years of age, adolescents (15 - 19 years), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (2 months - 19 years), and those aged at or above 2 months with certain medical conditions. A free dose is given at 12 months of age. For anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease the vaccine is recommended if their doctor deems it appropriate. Speak to your doctor to learn more or see who is most at risk of meningococcal disease here.
    Meningococcal B disease+                  
    The meningococcal B vaccine is strongly recommended (but not funded) for children less than 2 years of age, adolescents (15 - 19 years), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (2 months - 19 years), and those aged at or above 2 months with certain medical conditions. For anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease the vaccine is recommended if their doctor deems it appropriate. Speak to your doctor to learn more or see who is most at risk of meningococcal disease here.
    Mumps                  
     
    Pneumococcal disease+                  
    An additional dose of pneumococcal vaccine is recommended and NIP-funded at 6 months of age for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Two additional doses (at 6 months and 4 years) are recommended and NIP-funded for medically-at risk children. Further doses may be recommended and funded during adolescence depending on risk – speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Polio                  
     
    Rotavirus                  
     
    Rubella                  
     
    Tetanus                  
     
    Whooping cough (pertussis)                  
     
    Annual flu+      
     

     

     

     

     

     
    The influenza vaccine is recommended annually for all people aged 6 months and over. Influenza vaccine is funded under the NIP for those at or above 6 months of age with certain medical conditions and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 6 months to under 5 years and those aged at or above 15 years. Learn more about who should receive flu vaccination.
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  • The chickenpox vaccine is recommended for all adults, who have not had chicken pox or the vaccine especially those at higher risk such as healthcare and childcare workers.

    It is not recommended for pregnant women but if you are planning on becoming pregnant, please discuss with your doctor whether immunisation against chickenpox is appropriate for you.

    Immunisation schedule

    •  Immunisation may be recommended by experts but is not funded
    Diseases All adults Planning for a baby Pregnancy 65 and over 70 to 79 years Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander adults
    Chickenpox (varicella)            
     
    Diphtheria            
     
    Hepatitis B            
     
    Measles            
     
    Meningococcal ACWY disease            
     
    Meningococcal B disease            
     
    Mumps            
     
    Pneumococcal disease+            
    Pneumococcal vaccine is recommended and funded for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at 50 years of age, with a second dose recommended five years later. All non-Indigenous people can receive a free vaccine at 65 years of age. Women planning pregnancy who have risk factors for pneumococcal disease, including smokers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, should be assessed for pneumococcal vaccination.
    Rubella            
     
    Shingles (Herpes zoster)+            
    The herpes zoster (shingles) vaccine is funded for adults aged 70 years, with a short-term catch-up program for adults aged 71-79. It is also recommended (but not funded) for all adults over 60 years of age.
    Tetanus            
     
    Whooping cough (pertussis)            
     
    Annual flu+            
    The influenza vaccine is recommended annually for all adults, and is funded for pregnant women (during any stage of pregnancy), people aged 65 and over, people with certain medical conditions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
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  • If you are travelling overseas make sure you are up to date with your chickenpox immunisations.

    It is important to plan ahead and see your doctor at least 6 to 8 weeks before you travel to discuss immunisation and travel health.

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for mild chickenpox. Treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms and can include bed rest, drinking plenty of fluids, reducing fever and using over-the-counter creams to relieve itching.

In people who have a weakened immune system or severe cases, antiviral medication can be used.

Please speak to your doctor if you have any concerns about chickenpox treatment.

Important information

For information about chickenpox (varicella) immunisation contact your doctor.

Some side effects may be experienced following immunisation. Please discuss any side effects or concerns with your doctor.

AUS/VAC/0070/18 Date of Approval: November 2018