Before the chickenpox vaccine became widely available in 1995, “chickenpox parties” were sometimes held by parents who wanted to control when and how their children were exposed to this common virus. Parents believed that chickenpox was a mild, inevitable inconvenience—that all kids got it; that it wouldn’t cause them severe harm; and that they might as well have it during a time, such as summer, when it wouldn’t interfere as much with their daily lives. The practice waned somewhat after vaccines cut incidence of chickenpox by more than 90%. However, with recent vaccine hesitancy among some parents, chickenpox parties are being reported around the country. How can chickenpox parties hurt my child? Chickenpox is a viral illness caused by exposure to the varicella zoster virus. Chickenpox symptoms include fever, fatigue and the illness’ signature rash that starts as small red or pinkish spots, which then turn into itchy blisters that can spread all over the body, including inside the mouth, eyes, anus and vagina. It generally takes about 7 to 10 days after the symptoms develop before the infected person is no longer contagious to others. For the majority of children, the illness (despite uncomfortable, sometimes excruciating symptoms) is considered relatively mild, though some children can be left with scars from their blisters. However, in some cases it can cause severe complications, even death. While the vaccine has cut the numbers of hospitalizations and fatalities in the United States, about 1,500 to 4,000 people on average are hospitalized each year for severe chickenpox complications. If you hold a chickenpox party, you are rolling the dice that your child will not get the following: Bacterial infection of the skin sores, such as by “flesh-eating” bacteria Pneumonia Encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain) Problems controlling the muscles (cerebral ataxia) Spinal cord inflammation (transverse myelitis) Reye’s syndrome, which causes brain and liver damage Besides these immediate complications, chickenpox can cause later-in-life illness in the form of shingles. That’s because the chickenpox virus stays dormant in the nervous system for many years past the initial infection, before sometimes reactivating. Shingles is a painful skin eruption that can cause serious, ongoing nerve pain in some sufferers. Research shows that people who get the chickenpox vaccine are less likely to get shingles than people who have had chickenpox. Can chickenpox parties hurt others, too? Chickenpox is a highly contagious virus. The virus spreads through touching an infected person and through the air by coughs and sneezes. Someone who has chickenpox may not know they are contagious for up to two days before chickenpox spots appear. That means they can unwittingly be spreading the virus to people who are at risk for severe complications (such as babies, adults, and people with compromised immune systems). If you expose your child to the virus at a chickenpox party, the infection may not take hold for 10 to 21 days. Then, the first symptoms can be vague, such as feeling unwell or tired. Chickenpox spots don’t show up for the first day or two, even though the infected person is infectious. Once the blisters appear, it can take another week or so before they have crusted over and are no longer infectious. So, all told, you have several weeks to more than a month in which your exposed child may infect other people without meaning to, unless you are able to completely police his or her interactions with others. Is the chickenpox vaccine a safer alternative? The chickenpox vaccine—which has been administered to American children for more than 20 years—is “very safe,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most children (80%) see no side effects. Those who do may experience a sore arm, fever, mild rash or temporary pain and stiffness in the joints. More severe reactions, such as meningitis and seizures, are extremely rare; when they have occurred, often it has been in children with compromised immune systems. If you are weighing chickenpox party pros and cons, consider these factors: Dangers from the virus outweigh the risk of the vaccine, both for immediate complications and coming down with shingles later in life. Getting the vaccine spares your child the pain and discomfort of the illness, as well as eliminates the potential for chickenpox scars. The risk to others is eliminated when getting the vaccination, versus becoming infected and unwittingly exposing someone who could get seriously ill. If you’re having your child infected at a party, you are going to have a disruption in your life for several weeks while your child is potentially infectious and then ill. The vaccine side effects, if they occur at all, are much shorter-lived. This makes the vaccine the more convenient option. If you still have concerns about your child receiving the chickenpox vaccine, talk to your pediatrician to further evaluate the benefits vs. the risks. Together, you can work to reduce your child’s risk of chickenpox and prevent the spread of the virus to others.