The Varicella virus, which is short for Varicella-Zoster virus or VZV, is unique in that it is responsible for the development of two different illnesses, one of which 90% of American adults are immune to from previous exposure. If you've ever had chickenpox you're included in that 90%. So what other illness does VZV cause? Read on to find the answer to this question as well as the truth behind many of the myths surrounding this strange virus.
Myth: Chickenpox comes from chickens
Sorry, but that's not even a little bit true. Chickenpox doesn't come from chickens nor is it spread by chickens. No one is really sure how the chickenpox name came about. Some say it was named because the chickenpox rash looks like it was caused by a pecking chicken. Other say the lesions look about the size of a chick pea.
Myth: You can be infected with chickenpox multiple times
Alright, so this isn't entirely mythical. But generally, you can't get chickenpox a second or third time. The reason for this is that the Varicella-Zoster virus mutates very slowly, so there aren't many different strains out there. When you get re-infected with the same or similar strain a second time, your immune system immediately recognizes and destroys it before it has time to create infection. The only ways you could get chickenpox again are: 1) If you encountered a strain vastly different from the previous strain you were infected with 2) You had a very mild chickenpox reaction the first time and your immune system didn't mount a large enough response to prevent re-infection. Both of these are highly unlikely for most people.
Myth: The chickenpox vaccine isn't necessary since chickenpox isn't a fatal disease
Actually, about 9,000 people are hospitalized each year from chickenpox infections while about 100 people die from it. Many studies have shown the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. For those between the ages of 1 and 12 who were vaccinated once with the chickenpox vaccine, 97% developed immunity. While developing the illness is the most natural way to build immunity, parents must consider the severe secondary infections and scarring that can occur from incessant scratching of the chickenpox rash.
Myth: Shingles only infects old people
Nope. Shingles is the result of the reactivated Varicella virus. That's right: the same virus that causes chickenpox causes shingles. When your body fights off chickenpox the virus hides in nerve fibers along the spinal cord, eluding the predation of the immune system. But it can be re-awakened when the immune system is compromised, like when we age, become stressed, or take certain medications. So technically, anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles.
Myth: You can get shingles from someone experiencing a shingles outbreak
The only way you get can shingles is if the virus lying latent in your body becomes reactivated. However, if you've never had chickenpox you can catch them from someone going through a shingles outbreak by coming in contact with an oozing blister, but not their breath. The first time the virus infects anyone, it is manifested as chickenpox. If you've had chickenpox before there's about a 20% chance you'll develop shingles sometime in your life. Be sure to educate yourself about the progression of shingles and the ways to treat it to avoid its painful symptoms.
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