Chickenpox is a highly contagious viral infection that commonly affects children. Although a vaccine is available, some people prefer their children to build up immunity to the virus by attending chickenpox parties, or “pox parties.”
Before the chickenpox vaccine, many people used pox parties as a way to infect their children with the virus to help them move past the illness sooner rather than later. More recently, pox parties have regained popularity with some individuals who do not want their child to have the vaccine but still want them to develop immunity to the virus.
Chickenpox parties remain controversial. While some people argue that they are low risk when people run them correctly, others believe that they are unethical and potentially dangerous.
The medical community still considers vaccination to be the safest way to develop immunity to chickenpox.
In this article, we discuss chickenpox, the benefits and risks of pox parties, and chickenpox vaccination. We also include some general guidelines on how to hold a safe pox party.
Chickenpox results from infection with the varicella-zoster virus. Usually a mild illness, it generally affects children, although it can also affect adults who did not get infected in childhood.
Chickenpox generally affects a person only once. After contracting the virus, the individual develops a lifetime immunity to the illness. However, the virus remains in the body in an inactive, or dormant, form. Later in life, the virus can reactivate to cause a condition called shingles.
The telltale sign of chickenpox is a red, itchy, and bumpy rash. The bumps turn into fluid-filled blisters, which then crust over and form scabs. The rash can spread to many other areas of the body.
Other chickenpox symptoms may include:
It can be difficult for a child to resist scratching the rash, but touching it can worsen some of the symptoms, such as itchiness and irritation. Avoiding scratching or picking may also help prevent the spread of the disease and reduce the chances of scarring.
Chickenpox is highly contagious until all of the bumps and blisters have burst and scabbed over. It spreads through contact with bodily fluids, such as blister fluid and saliva. A person can also pass on the virus through coughing and sneezing.
People use pox parties as a way to deliberately infect their children with chickenpox. The idea is that the child gets the illness sooner rather than later and builds up a natural immunity to the virus.
During a pox party, parents or caregivers encourage uninfected children to play, eat, and interact with a child who currently has chickenpox. This close contact makes it much more likely that the children will catch chickenpox.
Chickenpox parties were popular when the vaccine for chickenpox was not yet available. Nowadays, some people who do not want their child to have the vaccine see pox parties as a natural way for them to acquire immunity to the illness.
Chickenpox can be very uncomfortable and upsetting for a child, but it is rarely severe in otherwise healthy children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the illness typically lasts for around 5 to 7 days.
However, chickenpox still carries potential risks. Certain groups of people who have not had the infection before may experience more severe symptoms and complications. These people include:
- newborns and infants
- individuals with weakened immune systems due to certain illnesses or medications
- pregnant women
Complications of chickenpox can include:
- blisters becoming infected with bacteria
- brain infection or inflammation
- blood poisoning, also known as septicemia
- bleeding problems
Children and adults who are at risk of chickenpox complications should not participate in pox parties and should discuss their options with a doctor.
Catching chickenpox once or getting a vaccine against the virus makes most healthy people immune for life.
Some children who receive the vaccine may still get the illness, but the symptoms tend to be milder with fewer blisters.
Children who catch chickenpox at a pox party will usually experience the full illness. And, although it is rare in healthy children, there is still a risk of complications after becoming infected with the virus.
In more severe cases, a child’s symptoms may require them to go to the hospital. On rare occasions, chickenpox can be fatal in otherwise healthy children and adults.
The medical community considers vaccination to be the safest way to prevent chickenpox and its potential complications.
The chickenpox vaccine uses a weakened version of the virus to build up the person’s immunity to the actual virus. The CDC recommend two doses of the chickenpox vaccine, as this amount is about 90 percent effective in protecting the person against the disease. Doctors usually administer the vaccine as follows:
- first dose between the ages of 12 and 15 months
- second dose between the ages of 4 and 6 years
The CDC also recommend that children who are over the age of 13 years and have never had chickenpox should get two doses of the vaccine with at least 28 days between them.
The vaccination may cause some side effects, including:
- mild rash
- temporary pain and stiffness in the joints
- soreness at the injection site
In rare cases, more severe side effects may occur, including:
- severe rash
Very rarely, people who have the chickenpox vaccination can pass on the vaccine version of the virus to other people.
It is essential that people who wish to host a pox party ensure the safety of all children and adults involved. Some general rules include:
- no child should attend without the consent of a parent or caregiver
- all children attending should be otherwise healthy
- at-risk children and adults, including infants, newborns, and children over 13 years old, should not participate
- once a child becomes infected, they should stay at home and keep away from uninfected children and other at-risk people until the illness passes
People may also want to consider keeping the party local and only inviting friends and parents whom they know and trust.
Another thing to avoid is “distance pox parties.” Some people on social media and internet forums offer to mail toys, items of clothing, and even food or lollipops that an infected child has touched or used.
Receiving infected items from a stranger is potentially very dangerous, and intentionally sending harmful bacteria or viruses through the post without the correct packaging and authorization is a federal offense in the United States and many other countries.
Chickenpox is a highly contagious viral infection that commonly affects children. The body builds up immunity to the virus, so most people only experience chickenpox once in their lifetime.
In otherwise healthy children, chickenpox symptoms are generally mild and clear up within a week or so. A vaccine is also available that is safe and protects children effectively against chickenpox. However, some people prefer to use pox parties as a way to infect their children with the virus so that they move past the illness sooner rather than later.
Anyone who is planning on letting their child go to a pox party should consider all their options with a doctor. Even in healthy children, catching chickenpox is not without risk. Parents or caregivers may also want to ask the child how they feel about this course of action.
Children and adults who have a higher risk of developing complications from chickenpox should not attend these parties. These people include newborns, infants, and children over the age of 13 years who have not had the infection already.
Is it important for children to develop immunity to chickenpox, either through vaccination or by contracting the illness naturally?
Yes, it is important to develop immunity to chickenpox because it can be very severe if a person contracts the infection as an adult. The safest way to develop immunity is through the vaccine.Carissa Stephens, RN, CCRN, CPN Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.