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Chickenpox (varicella)

9-minute read

Key facts

  • Chickenpox is a very contagious infection caused by the varicella zoster virus.
  • The most common symptom of chickenpox is an itchy red rash with fluid-filled blisters.
  • Most cases of chickenpox are mild and get better on their own.
  • Serious complications of chickenpox include infected blisters, pneumonia and meningitis.
  • Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself against chickenpox.

What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox is a very contagious infection caused by the varicella zoster virus. Chickenpox can affect anyone at any age.

Most people with chickenpox have mild symptoms and get better quickly. In rare cases, the virus can cause serious complications such as:

This page gives advice for adults and children above 5 years of age. Visit the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby website to learn more about:

What are the symptoms of chickenpox?

The main symptom of chickenpox is an itchy red rash. During the illness, the rash turns into fluid-filled blisters that burst and crust over.

You may also:

Symptoms usually start about 2 weeks after being around someone with chickenpox. They can continue for between 10 days and 3 weeks.

Chickenpox is more common in children. When adults catch chickenpox, they usually have a more severe illness and can take longer to get better.

A chickenpox rash starts with small, itchy red spots.

Illustration of chickenpox blisters
A chickenpox rash starts with small, itchy red spots.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

Should I keep my child home from school?

Here’s a list of common childhood illnesses, including chickenpox, and their recommended exclusion periods.

How is chickenpox spread?

Chickenpox is very contagious. You are likely to catch chickenpox if you aren’t immune and come into contact with an infected person. You may be immune if you:

  • are vaccinated against chickenpox
  • have previously had chickenpox

The chickenpox virus is spread in 2 ways:

  1. Before the rash appears, the virus spreads through cough droplets that can travel through the air. This means that an infected person can spread chickenpox before they know that they are sick.
  2. Once the rash has developed, the virus can be spread through contact with the fluid in the blisters.

If you have chickenpox, you should stay home until you are no longer contagious. Chickenpox is no longer contagious once all your blisters have crusted over.

When should I see my doctor?

You should see your doctor if you have symptoms of chickenpox to be sure you are diagnosed correctly.

Because chickenpox is very contagious, you should call your doctor before your visit. They will tell you know the safest way to see them.

You should see your doctor urgently if you have severe symptoms, including:

Severe symptoms may be a sign of complications that need medical treatment.

Chickenpox is a notifiable disease in most states and territories in Australia. This means that your doctor must report cases of chickenpox to the local public health authority.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

Who is at risk from chickenpox?

Chickenpox is very contagious for anyone who is not immune.

If you have been vaccinated or have had chickenpox in the past, you are unlikely to catch chickenpox again.

Chickenpox can be more dangerous for some groups of people, including:

  • pregnant women
  • people with weakened immune systems, such as patients receiving chemotherapy
  • babies

If you are in one of these groups and have been near someone with chickenpox, you should see your doctor — even if you have no symptoms.

In some cases, your doctor may prescribe:

  • antibodies to reduce your chance of becoming infected
  • antivirals to reduce the severity of the illness if you are infected

Chickenpox and pregnancy

Chickenpox is particularly dangerous for pregnant women and their babies. Women who have chickenpox for the first-time during pregnancy are more likely to develop a serious illness and complications.

If you catch chickenpox while pregnant, your baby may be born with:

If you are planning a pregnancy, see your doctor for advice about pre-conception screening for immunity to chickenpox.

The chickenpox vaccine is not advised during pregnancy, so it’s better to get the vaccine before you get pregnant.

How is chickenpox diagnosed?

Chickenpox is usually diagnosed by a doctor when they examine you. Your doctor may also ask if you’ve had recent contact with anyone who has chickenpox and about your vaccination history.

In some cases, they may do tests on fluid from your blisters to confirm that you have chickenpox.

How is chickenpox treated?

There is no specific treatment for chickenpox.

Most people with chickenpox have mild symptoms and get better quickly, but chickenpox can still be uncomfortable.

Chickenpox blisters can be very itchy. It can be hard to avoid scratching them — especially for children. However, if you scratch your blisters, they are more likely to become infected and leave scars. Some people find it helpful to keep their fingernails short to make scratching more difficult.

You can also try to ease your symptoms with these tips:

  • Use soothing lotions and antihistamines to reduce itching.
  • Take paracetamol to lower your fever — always follow the dose instructions on the packet.
  • Keep hydrated with water and other fluids.
  • Get plenty of rest.

Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medicine if you are very unwell, or if you have a weakened immune system.

Antibiotics will not help you get better because chickenpox is caused by a virus, not bacteria.

How can I prevent chickenpox?

The best way to prevent chickenpox is through vaccination.

Most vaccinated people will not get chickenpox. If you do get infected you will generally have a milder form of chickenpox and a quicker recovery.

You can get the chickenpox vaccine:

  • on its own
  • in combination with the vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR-V vaccination)

MMR vaccinations do not cause autism. Medical and scientific experts have discredited the research that suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Children can have the chickenpox vaccine for free on the National Immunisation Program Schedule at 18 months of age.

Should I get vaccinated?

Speak to your doctor about getting vaccinated, if you have never:

  • had chickenpox
  • been vaccinated against chickenpox

The chickenpox vaccine is not recommended when you are pregnant or if you have a weakened immune system.

Vaccination against chickenpox is strongly recommended if you work in:

  • childcare
  • aged care
  • healthcare

This is because you are more likely to be exposed to chickenpox infection.

About the chickenpox vaccine

At what age is vaccination recommended?

From 12 months of age.

It’s recommended that children aged between 12 months and 14 years get a second dose of varicella vaccine. This is not included in the National Immunisation Program schedule. A second dose give extra protection against chickenpox.

People aged 14 years or older are recommended to have 2 vaccine doses, at least 4 weeks apart.

How many doses?

1 or 2 doses

Ask your doctor how many doses are right for you.

How is the vaccine administered? The vaccine is given by injection.
Is it free?

One vaccine dose is free on the National Immunisation Program for:

  • people under 20 years of age
  • refugees of any age entering Australia

Your doctor may charge a consultation fee for your visit. You can find your nearest bulk billing (no fee) GP clinic using the healthdirect Service Finder tool.

Common side effects

Vaccination against chickenpox is very safe, but side effects can sometimes occur. Common side effects include redness at the injection site, a rash or a mild fever.

Side effects usually appear about a week after receiving the vaccine, but they pass quickly.

What complications can come with chickenpox?

Complications linked to chickenpox are rare, but can be serious. They may include:

If your chickenpox blisters become infected, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic to treat the infection.

If you have been diagnosed with chickenpox and are concerned about complications, speak with your doctor.

Resources and support

To learn more about immunisation in Australia, you can visit the Department of Health Immunisation website.

The Sharing Knowledge About Immunisation website has tools to help you make decisions about immunisation and your family.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2023

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