Chicken pox parties are something that have been fairly off the radar — well, our radar anyhow. But a recent scam to sell the chicken pox virus through the mail has brought the trend front and center, sending both parents and the media into a tizzy. The scam at hand was started by a Facebook page called “Find A Pox Party In Your Area”, which has since been deleted — because while pox parties are legal, sending any sort of virus or germs through the U.S. postal service without using a biohazard or biomedical waste service is 100% illegal. Though concerns over the mail issue have for the most part dissipated, worries over chicken pox parties have just begun. Facebook pages such “Find a Pox Party Near You” are creating a space for parents to promote parties to other parents who are willing to take their child to an infected home. In these homes, children can catch the virus and become immune without the need for vaccination. Read on to learn more.

Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

chicken pox party, pox party, chicken pox, deadly chicken pox, shingles, viruses, vaccine safety, chicken pox vaccine, chicken pox complications, baby health, adult chicken pox
Chickenpox lesions on four-year-old day 5 of illness - image ©CDC/ J.D. Millar

What is Chicken Pox?

Chicken pox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. Chicken pox is highly contagious and can be spread by direct contact or through the air by coughing or sneezing. This virus is also spread through direct contact with any fluid from a blister of a person infected with the virus or from contact with someone with the shingles virus. While the CDC and chicken pox party supporters point out that usually chicken pox presents as a mild problem in children, the illness is not so mild in adults. Mild and common symptoms of chicken pox include the telltale itchy rash (pox), fever, coughing, fussiness, headache, and loss of appetite and the illness can last for 5–10 days.

Adults are more likely to experience harsher chicken pox symptoms, but young children are at risk too. Advanced complications and symptoms include bacterial infection of the skin or other parts of the body including the bones, lungs, joints, and blood, pneumonia or infection of the brain. About 50 people a year suffer from infected chicken pox blisters; in some cases the bacterial infection is caused by group A streptococcus (GAS) which can lead to “flesh-eating bacteria,” or streptococcal toxic shock syndrome (STSS). This destroys muscles, fat, and skin tissue and causes a rapid drop in blood pressure and organ failure. People die from STSS each year in the USA.

Complications aside, because the virus is often milder in children, some parents still choose exposure over vaccine, hence the chicken pox parties. However, this is a risk you should weigh carefully, as chicken pox is not so mild as it seems.

chicken pox party, pox party, chicken pox, deadly chicken pox, shingles, viruses, vaccine safety, chicken pox vaccine, chicken pox complications, baby health, adult chicken pox
Photo ©CDC/ Judy Schmidt

How to Prevent Chicken Pox

There are two ways to prevent getting chicken pox: one is getting vaccinated with the chicken pox vaccine; the other way is to actually catch the virus, have it, and become immune to it — this is the idea behind chicken pox parties. In our opinion, chicken pox parties are a better idea than allowing your un-vaccinated child to catch chicken pox as an adult. However, there are some serious cons involved as well. For one, you can’t possible know if your child will be one of those kids who will have a severe chicken pox reaction. The CDC notes that before the development of the vaccine, about 100 people died every year in the United States from chicken pox, and the virus resulted in about 11,000 hospitalizations each year. Additionally, some very serious complications may arise if you catch chicken pox naturally.

Trust Me – You Don’t Want Shingles – A Potential Chicken Pox Complication

Not getting vaccinated against chicken pox can result in some serious health issues. For example, anyone who has gotten chicken pox naturally in their life (not been vaccinated) can later get shingles. While the chicken pox vaccine doesn’t guarantee immunity from shingles, it increases the odds you won’t get and if you do, it makes the disease less severe. Also, researchers believe the shingles strain will change for the better as fewer people contract chicken pox. Almost 1 out of every 3 people in the United States will develop shingles and there are an estimated 1 million cases each year in the USA. While the disease is most common in older adults (over the age of 60) anyone, even children, can get it. After someone recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays in the body in an inactive state. For reasons that are not fully known, the virus can reactivate years later, causing shingles. Shingles is horrible — you don’t want it, and you absolutely don’t want your child to get it.

Beyond older adults, younger adults and kids with compromised immune systems can get shingles. Case in point, when I was in my early twenties I caught a nasty flu, thus compromising my immune system. What happened? Shingles happened. Shingles was worse, in my opinion, than childbirth. Shingles usually starts as a painful rash, but can turn into painful blisters that occur in a single stripe around either the left or the right side of the body. Fever, headache, chills and upset stomach are the milder symptoms, but the pain from shingles is nothing like chicken pox.

Shingles pain is excruciating. It’s not itchy, but painful and can disrupt sleep and eating habits. Shingles can also result in a condition called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN causes severe pain in the areas where someone had the shingles rash, even after the rash clears up. Shingles can also lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation (encephalitis) or death. The only way to help prevent shingles is to get vaccinated. If you’ve never been vaccinated or if you’ve had naturally occurring chicken pox, you can get shingles.

chicken pox party, pox party, chicken pox, deadly chicken pox, shingles, viruses, vaccine safety, chicken pox vaccine, chicken pox complications, baby health, adult chicken pox
Varicella Virus Up Close - Image © CDC

Potential Chicken Pox Complications are a Real Threat to Unborn Babies

Another problem with not getting vaccinated against chicken pox is that chicken pox is a serious problem for pregnant women and their unborn babies. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends that all non-pregnant women of childbearing age be vaccinated against chicken pox. If you’ve never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, the time to think about getting vaccinated is BEFORE you conceive. If you contract chicken pox during pregnancy it can cause congenital varicella syndrome — a group of birth defects that may include:

  • Scars
  • Defects of muscle and bone
  • Malformed and paralyzed limbs
  • A smaller-than-normal head
  • Blindness
  • Seizures
  • Mental retardation

If you contract chicken pox late in your pregnancy, your baby may be born with chickenpox, which can be extremely serious if you don’t know your baby has it. When a pregnant mother develops the chicken pox rash between five days before delivery and two days after delivery, about 25% to 50% of newborns become infected, developing a rash. In newborns, chicken pox is a serious and sometimes fatal, form of the virus. If your newborn has it, they will need immediate treatment consisting of an injection of varicella-zoster immune globulin that neutralizes the virus. However, according to the March of Dimes, the only version of this treatment currently available in the United States is an investigational new drug (not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration) manufactured in Canada called VariZIG.

Overall, because having chicken pox or not getting vaccinated can lead to a host of complications, in both children and adults, you need to weigh the pros and cons very carefully before you decide to not to vaccinate. It’s not just the actual chicken pox disease you need to worry about – it’s all the possible complications to be had in childhood and later in life.

+ Chicken Pox FAQ (pdf)

Lead Image © Flickr user Dplanet