Chickenpox (varicella) rarely causes complications, but it is not always harmless. It can cause hospitalization and, in rare cases, death. Fortunately, since the introduction of the vaccine in 1995, hospitalizations have declined by nearly 90%, and there have been few fatal cases of chickenpox.
Older adults have the greatest risk for dying from chickenpox, with infants having the next highest risk. Males (both boys and men) have a higher risk for a severe case of chickenpox than females. Children who catch chickenpox from family members are more likely to have a severe case than if they caught it outside the home. The older the child, the higher the risk for a more severe case. But even in such circumstances, chickenpox is rarely serious in children.
Other factors put individuals at specifically higher risk for complications of the varicella-zoster virus. Patients with diseases, such as Hodgkin's disease, who receive bone marrow or stem cell transplants are at higher risk for herpes zoster and its complications.
Although a pregnant woman has a very low risk for contracting chickenpox, if she does become infected the virus increases her risk for life-threatening pneumonia. Infection in the pregnant woman in the first trimester also poses a 1 - 2% chance for infecting the developing fetus and potentially causing birth defects. Herpes zoster is extremely rare in pregnant women, and there is almost no risk for the unborn child in such cases. The major long-term complication of varicella is the later reactivation of the herpes zoster virus and the development of shingles. Shingles occurs in about 20% of people who have had chickenpox.
Specific Complications of Chickenpox (Varicella)
Aside from itching, the complications described below are very rare.
Itching. Itching, the most common complication of the varicella infection, can be very distressing, particularly for small children. Certain home remedies are available that can alleviate the discomfort. [See: "Treatment for Chickenpox" section below.]
Review Date: 05/03/2011
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.