Chickenpox (varicella)

Chickenpox (varicella) is a highly contagious disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus. The disease is usually mild in children but can be severe in adults and those with impaired immune systems. Each year, approximately 11,000 people are hospitalized and 100 die due to chickenpox. College students who have not had chickenpox should be vaccinated against this potentially serious disease.

Vaccination Recommendations for College Students
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College Health Association recommend that all college students without a history of chickenpox receive the vaccine.

Symptoms of the Disease

Chickenpox has a characteristic itchy rash, which then forms blisters that dry and scab in four to five days. The rash can be the first sign of illness, sometimes accompanied by fever and tiredness. An infected person can have skin lesions that can be few in number to more than 500. Complications that may require hospitalization increase with age.

Adults are 10 times more likely than children to be hospitalized with severe consequences of chickenpox. These consequences include pneumonia and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).

Transmission of the Disease
Chickenpox is highly contagious. About 90 percent of individuals who have not had chickenpox will get the disease if they are exposed to an infected person. The virus can be spread from person to person through the air or by contact with fluid from chickenpox blisters. The disease remains contagious from a day or two before the rash appears until all the blisters form scabs.

Incidence of Chickenpox
In the United States, chickenpox is very common. Virtually all individuals who have not been vaccinated contract chickenpox by adulthood. Approximately 90 percent of chickenpox cases occur in children 1 to 14 years of age, and most people will have had chickenpox by their early 20s. About four million Americans develop chickenpox each year. Nearly 11,000 have complications that require hospitalization, and about 100 people die. The highest incidence of chickenpox occurs between March and May.

Risk for College Students
Adults are more likely to die from chickenpox and its complications, which increase with age. Chickenpox can spread more easily in a college living environment, including dormitories, classrooms, libraries and other close quarters where students spend a lot of time, which increases the likelihood for college students to contract the disease. Health sciences students (e.g., nursing and medical) are at particular risk of exposure and may transmit the disease to persons at high risk of complications; therefore, health sciences students should be vaccinated against varicella if susceptible.

The Chickenpox Vaccine
The chickenpox vaccine is safe and effective. The vaccine is approximately 80-90 percent effective in preventing disease. The most common side effect is soreness at the site of injection. People over age 13 require two doses at least one month apart. Most people who get vaccinated will not get chickenpox, and if they do get chickenpox, it’s usually very mild.


Some people who have had chickenpox may develop shingles later in life. Shingles, or herpes zoster, is caused by a reactivation of the same varicella virus that causes chickenpox. Shingles is a painful infection, which may include a blistering rash and severe burning pain, tingling or extreme sensitivity to the skin. Symptoms last about a month. Approximately one in five people in the United States develop shingles. Studies are underway to determine if the chickenpox vaccine can help prevent or reduce the severity of shingles later in life.

For More Information
To learn more about chickenpox and the vaccine, please contact your physician or University Health Services, Betsy Cheramie Ayo Hall, 985.493.2600. For general information about chickenpox among college students, visit the Web sites of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College Health Association.

The American College Health Association

The American College Health Association, founded in 1920, is a national nonprofit organization serving and representing the interests of professionals and students in health and higher education. Its mission is to be the principal advocate and leadership organization for college and university health. The association provides advocacy, education and services for its members to enhance their ability to improve the health of all students and the campus community.