While some parents choose unconventional methods to expose their children to the chickenpox virus, vaccination remains the recommended way to limit the spread of the virus.

A study published in the Aug. 17 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that since the vaccine became widely available, chickenpox-related hospitalizations and ambulatory care visits have "declined dramatically among all age groups in the United States."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the vaccine protects children and adults from severe complications tied to the disease, which include skin infections, scars, pneumonia, brain damage and death.

The JAMA study examined data from 1994 -- just before the vaccine was approved -- through 2002, when vaccination rates among children ages 19 to 35 months reached 81 percent. Chickenpox-related hospitalizations during that period "declined by 88 [percent] (from 2.3 to 0.3 per 100,000 population) and ambulatory visits declined by 59 [percent], from 215 to 89 per 100,000 population," according to the study. Money spent on chickenpox care declined by 74 percent, from an average of $84.9 million a year in 1994 and 1995 to $22.1 million in 2002, the study reports.

Redness, swelling and soreness at the injection site are the most common side effects reported from the chickenpox vaccine, according to the CDC.

Small bumps or a mild rash happen in about 1 to 4 percent of patients. And as with any vaccine, there is a small chance of serious problems, including seizures, brain infection, pneumonia, severe allergic reactions and loss of balance. Risks associated with the shot are much lower than for the disease itself, the CDC advises.

Wondering whether you or your child should get vaccinated? Here are the CDC's recommendations:

* All children ages 12 to 18 months should have one dose of chickenpox vaccine. Those who have already had the virus don't need to get the shot.

* Children ages 19 months to 13 years who have not had chickenpox should get a single-shot vaccine.

* Those ages 13 and older who have not had chickenpox should get two doses of the vaccine, four to eight weeks apart.

-- January W. Payne