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Chickenpox and Shingles

What is it?

Chickenpox is a viral disease caused by varicella-zoster virus (VZV). It is highly contagious and potentially life-threatening. 

Common symptoms include fevers and an itchy rash that can spread over the whole body. There can also be serious complications such as pneumonia, encephalitis, and sepsis. The rash can appear differently depending on skin tone. The rash often consists of red or pink bumps, but these bumps may be the same color as the skin or even darker. Chickenpox rashes are generally harder to see on people with darker skin. 

The vaccine is more than 90% effective with two doses (one at 12-15 months and one at 4-6 years old). 
Although you can still get chickenpox if you get vaccinated, it is usually a milder version. The vaccine prevents approximately 3.5 million cases of chickenpox per year.

For more information about chickenpox vaccination, click here.

Shingles refers to the reactivation of varicella-zoster virus. After someone has had chickenpox or the vaccine, the virus lives in their body and can reactivate.


Shingles is not life-threatening, but it does cause a painful rash. This rash is usually on one side of the torso and is a stripe of blisters. In addition, shingles can cause a condition called postherpetic neuralgia, which causes long-term pain even after the blisters are gone. 


In the US, the guidelines are that people over 50 (and people 19 or older with certain medical conditions) should get two doses of the shingles vaccine (specifically Shingrix). This vaccine is highly effective: for people 50-69 years old, the vaccine is 97% effective at preventing shingles.

Vaccine Options:



What's the difference between them?

Varivax only protects against chickenpox, while MMRV protects against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) in addition to chickenpox. Shingrix and Zostavax both protect against shingles. Zostavax stopped being used in the US in 2020, but it is still used in some other countries.

Relevant Terms

  • Encephalitis: swelling of the brain

  • Pneumonia: an infection in the lungs that causes air sacs to fill with fluid

  • Sepsis: a severe reaction to an infection that causes severe information that damages organs and tissues in the body and can be deadly

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Last updated: Sep. 24, 2023

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