July 21, 2016

Chickenpox and measles may be more prevalent in children, but they often hit adults harder.


For many of us, getting the chickenpox was a rite of passage. It meant days off school, bonus movie time with mom or dad and, of course, a lot of scratching.

Having the chickenpox as an adult isn’t quite the same. In fact, it can be quite serious. And it’s not the only childhood condition that adults can get — and more seriously than their child counterparts.

“Chickenpox, measles and mumps are generally childhood diseases,” says Mary McBean, M.D., of Vanderbilt’s Spring Hill Family Practice.  “However, when children aren’t immunized, the infection can spread to parents who may experience much more serious symptoms and complications.”



While chickenpox usually causes fluid-filled blisters in children, adult chickenpox outbreak is much more severe, sometimes leading to pneumonia, meningitis, encephalitis and bleeding problems. Pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems who have not been vaccinated are at highest risk of getting a serious case of chickenpox, McBean says.

Additionally, the chickenpox varicella-zoster virus can reactivate years or decades alter as shingles, which affects 1 million Americans each year.

The vaccine: Varicella (chickenpox) in two doses, separated by at least 4 weeks for adults.



Remember last year’s measles outbreak at Disneyland that swept the country? This is largely due to pockets of unvaccinated people spreading the virus, McBean says. The highly contagious virus can be spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.

“Measles can be a serious in all age groups. However, children younger than 5 years of age and adults older than 20 years of age are more likely to suffer from measles complications,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These complications can include pneumonia, encephalitis and deafness.

The vaccine: Measles mumps rubella (MMR), 97 percent effective at preventing measles if exposed.



“Mumps has been making the news recently because there have been a series of outbreaks starting in 2006 affecting 6,500 people, starting with college students in Midwestern states,” McBean says. There have been 1,272 mumps cases reported in 33 states this year, including Tennessee, as of June 6.

McBean says the condition can be most severe in adulthood, with complications such as miscarriage, meningitis and pancreatitis.

The vaccine: MMR, at least one dose for anyone 18 or older who was born after 1956.