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Chickenpox Vaccine for Adults
Q: I had chickenpox at the age of six weeks. I am now 35 years old. Would it make sense for me to have the vaccine to prevent getting it again?
A: Most people who get chicken pox once do not get it again. When you have chickenpox your body's immune system develops antibodies to the chickenpox virus; the antibodies "remember" the virus forever, and when you get exposed to it again they attack it and prevent you from getting sick again. In fact, every time you are exposed to it, your body produces slightly more antibody, so that for most adults the amount of antibody in their system is pretty high.
In some people, however, the immune system does not generate these antibodies that remember the virus. This can happen in people who are very young when they get chickenpox (less than six months old), or who have some disorder of their immune system.
Since you had chickenpox at such a young age, there is a possibility that you never developed good antibodies to it, although it may be that you did. The only way to know is to get a blood test that measures how much antibody you have to the chickenpox virus. If you have a high enough level of the antibody, there is no need to get the vaccine, as you are already protected. If your antibody level (or titer) is low, then you should get the vaccine, as chickenpox is a much more serious illness in adults than in children, and we know that the vaccine works very well to prevent it.
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Shari Nethersole is a physician at Children's Hospital, Boston, and an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from Yale University and Harvard Medical School, and did her internship and residency at Children's Hospital, Boston. As a pediatrician, she tries to work with parents to identify and address their concerns.