Can chickenpox cause injury and/or death?
For most people, chickenpox is a mild infection which lasts between 5 and 10 days.1 However, in rare cases, complications can occur. The most common complications include bacterial infections of the soft tissues and skin, which occur primarily in children; and pneumonia, more frequently seen among adults who develop the infection. Complications of bacterial infections can include bacterial pneumonia, septicemia, osteomyelitis, septic arthritis, necrotizing fasciitis, and toxic shock syndrome. 2 Infrequently, complications such as central nervous system disturbances, including cerebellar ataxia, encephalitis, and aseptic meningitis may also occur. Children who take aspirin or aspirin-containing products during a chickenpox infection are at a higher risk for developing Reye syndrome,3 an illness which affects the liver, blood, and brain, and can lead to coma and brain death.4
Additional rare complications include Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), transverse myelitis, hemorrhagic varicella, myocarditis, hepatitis, glomerulonephritis, purpura fulminans, orchitis, uveitis, iritis, thrombocytopenia, and death.5
Persons with immunosuppressive conditions who become infected with chickenpox may be at risk for visceral dissemination, a complication where the internal organs become infected with chickenpox. Visceral dissemination can lead to encephalitis, hepatitis, pneumonia, and disseminated intravascular coagulopathy (DIC).6
Rarely, congenital varicella syndrome (CVS) can also occur if a pregnant woman develops chickenpox in the early part of a pregnancy. Infants born with this condition can have abnormalities of the arms, legs, hands, feet, eyes, brain, skin, and other areas of the body. If a pregnant woman develops chickenpox during the first 20 weeks of gestation, the risk of an infant developing CVS is estimated to be between 0.4 and 2 percent. 7 8 The risk of CVS after a case of maternal chickenpox in the second trimester is believed to be at less than 1 percent, and no risk of CVS exists if a mother develops chickenpox during the third trimester of pregnancy.9
Newborn infants whose mothers developed chickenpox from 5 days before to 2 days after delivery are at a higher risk for the development of neonatal chickenpox, that, if left untreated, may lead to death.10
IMPORTANT NOTE: NVIC encourages you to become fully informed about Chickenpox and the Chickenpox vaccine by reading all sections in the Table of Contents , which contain many links and resources such as the manufacturer product information inserts, and to speak with one or more trusted health care professionals before making a vaccination decision for yourself or your child. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice.
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1 Medline Plus Chickenpox Jan. 30, 2019
2 CDC Chickenpox (Varicella) For Healthcare Providers – Complications Dec. 31, 2018
3 CDC Varicella – Complications Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases (The Pink Book). 13th ed. 2015.
4 MedlinePlus Reye Syndrome May 9, 2018
5 CDC Varicella – Complications Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases (The Pink Book). 13th ed. 2015.
6 CDC Chickenpox (Varicella) For Healthcare Providers – Complications Dec. 31, 2018
7 National Organization for Rare Disorders Congenital Varicella Syndrome 2005
8 Harger JH, Ernest JM, Thurnau GR et al. Frequency of congenital varicella syndrome in a prospective cohort of 347 pregnant women. Obstet Gynecol. 2002 Aug;100(2):260-5.
9 Smith CK, Arvin AM. Varicella in the fetus and newborn. Semin Fetal Neonatal Med. 2009 Aug;14(4):209-17.
10 Cobelli Kett J Perinatal Varicella Pediatr Rev. 2013 Jan;34(1):49-51