Chickenpox in Adults Not Common but More Severe

If it struck you as unusual that longtime television journalist Barbara Walters had fallen ill with chickenpox — at age 83 — that’s because it is. Contracting chickenpox as an adult is “not common at all,” says Chad Johnston, MD, who practices internal medicine at Memorial Physician Services’ Capital Healthcare Medical Associates.

“In Walters’ case, she had not been exposed to chickenpox before and had not had the vaccine,” Dr. Johnston said. “That constitutes a very small part of our society, because around 90 percent to 95 percent of adults have immunity to chickenpox.”Initial symptoms of chickenpox in an adult are the same as what you see in children, Dr. Johnston said. These include a fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, headache and sore throat that precede a rash that occurs one to two days later, beginning on the scalp and trunk of the body and spreading outward to the face, arms and legs. After the rash spreads, it turns into itchy, fluid-filled blisters that eventually scab over. The entire illness lasts about a week to 10 days.

You are contagious two to three days before the rash appears until the blisters crust over. The typical incubation period (the time it takes from exposure to when you notice a rash) is about 14 to 16 days.

What’s troubling about adult chickenpox, Dr. Johnston said, is that adults face far more complications from the illness than children, including dehydration, bleeding problems, pneumonia, brain inflammation, bone or joint infections or other serious secondary bacterial infections.

“It’s just a lot worse for us as we get older,” he said, “and we just don’t see that in children.”

Once you have had the chickenpox, your immune system protects you from getting it again. However, the virus that causes chickenpox — the varicella zoster virus— can cause shingles in adults. One of every three Americans has a chance of getting shingles in their lifetime. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays in the body in a dormant (inactive) state. For reasons that are not fully known, the virus can reactivate years later, causing shingles.

Since 1995, a vaccine has been available to prevent the chickenpox. It is administered to children in two doses between the ages of 12 and 15 months, and then 4 to 6 years. With adults, the two doses can be administered within four to eight weeks of one another. Dr. Johnston recommends that any adult who does not have immunity be vaccinated. Certain groups of people with weak immune systems or who are pregnant, however, should not get the vaccine because it includes live virus. People who are allergic to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin also should not receive the vaccine.

For more information, visit the CDC’s website on the chickenpox vaccine.