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What Is the Varicella Vaccine Used For?

The varicella vaccine is approved for preventing chickenpox in both adults and children. Healthcare providers may also occasionally recommend off-label uses for the varicella vaccine, such as for the prevention of chickenpox (or to reduce the severity) in people who have recently been exposed to chickenpox within the past three to five days.

What Is the Varicella Vaccine Used For?

The varicella vaccine (Varivax®) is the chickenpox vaccine. It can be given to children older than 12 months, adolescents, and adults. Individuals who have already had chickenpox do not need to get the varicella vaccine (vaccination of individuals who have had chickenpox is not dangerous but is unnecessary).
 
Some people may question the benefit of the varicella vaccine, since chickenpox was once a common (and seemingly mild) childhood illness. While it is true that most cases of chickenpox are not dangerous, chickenpox can cause severe skin infection, scars, pneumonia, brain damage, or even death. Before the vaccine, 11,000 people were hospitalized every year and 100 people died every year from chickenpox in the United States alone.
 
Like all vaccines, the varicella vaccine is not 100 percent effective for preventing chickenpox. While most people who get the vaccine will never get chickenpox, the few cases that do occur are generally mild. As is common with relatively new vaccines, it is unknown exactly how long this protection will last and if a booster will be necessary.
 

Varicella Vaccine and Shingles

At this time, it is not exactly clear how the varicella vaccine affects the risk of having shingles. Shingles (also known as herpes zoster) is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a chickenpox infection, the body never completely gets rid of the virus, and the virus remains inactive in certain nerve cells in the body. Later in life, often triggered by stress or illness, the virus can become active again, causing shingles.
 
It is not yet clear how the varicella vaccine may impact the risk of getting shingles. Although early research indicated that the vaccine decreases the risk of shingles, population surveys have shown inconclusive results.
 
There is also a concern that the varicella vaccine may indirectly increase the risk of shingles, particularly in people who have never been vaccinated (who actually had chickenpox). Exposure to people with chickenpox (typically through contact with young children) serves as a "booster," providing some protection against shingles.

As actual chickenpox cases are becoming rarer (due to increased vaccination), this natural immune boosting is less likely to occur, and shingles cases may increase.
 
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Varicella Vaccine Information

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