If You Had Chickenpox, You May Also Develop Shingles—Here's How

Are you at risk of developing shingles? If you've had chicken pox, you may be susceptible.

If You Had Chickenpox, You May Also Develop Shingles—Here's How

Many people have vivid memories of childhood chicken pox infections—the itchy spots, the oatmeal baths and the social isolation until you were no longer contagious. Maybe you had a mild case and weren’t bothered too much by symptoms—except of course for those itchy areas you were told not to scratch. But you may not know that you are still at risk of developing a more serious infection related to chickenpox—shingles. Here, we’ll shed some light on the chicken pox virus, its connection to shingles and what to do if you get shingles.

The chickenpox virus
Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This virus spreads easily through direct contact and can also be spread through coughing or sneezing. After exposure, infection can develop 10 to 21 days later. Though the very obvious itchy spots are one sign of infection, the chickenpox virus can also cause fever, loss of appetite, headache and fatigue. 

The stages of the shingles rash include the development of pink or red bumps (“pox”), small fluid-filled blisters and crusts and scabs on the skin. These symptoms can last for up to 10 days and are usually mild; however, in some cases, skin lesions may be more severe and can spread affect the entire body, including the eyes and throat.

The best way to reduce your risk of chickenpox infection is by getting vaccinated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 98 percent of those who get the full vaccination are likely to be completely protected from infection.

The virus affects adults, too
Although chickenpox is often considered a childhood disease, adults can also get infected. You are at higher risk of contracting the virus if you were not infected with it as a child, have not been vaccinated for chickenpox or work in an environment with children (school or child care) or live with children. Those at higher risk of complications from chickenpox include pregnant women who have not previously been infected, people with an impaired immune system (those with cancer, HIV or other conditions) or people who take steroid medications for asthma or other conditions.

Unfortunately, those who have had chickenpox are still at risk of developing a related condition called shingles.

The risk of developing shingles
Shingles is also caused by the varicella-zoster virus. Even after you’ve recovered from chickenpox, some of the virus may stay behind in your nerves. If the virus “reawakens” later in life, it can cause very painful skin blisters that usually develop on one side of the body or face. Other symptoms of shingles include fever, headache, chills and an upset stomach.

While you may not be as familiar with shingles as chickenpox, according to the CDC, almost one out of every three people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime. Compared to chickenpox, shingles is not as contagious—however, it can spread through direct contact with liquid from blisters on the skin. Thus, it is important to cover the blisters and avoid touching them, wash your hands often and avoid people at highest risk of infection, including those with impaired immune systems and pregnant women who have never been infected with chickenpox.

Unfortunately, shingles can also lead to complications, the most common of which is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHD), prolonged pain that remains after the blisters have healed. PHD can last from a few weeks to months but the pain could still affect you years later. Other potential complications include vision loss or other serious conditions.

How to manage shingles
Just as with chickenpox, the best way to prevent shingles is to get vaccinated, which the CDC recommends for those 50 years and older. However, if you do develop shingles, there are available treatments that can help manage your symptoms. Antiviral medications can shorten the length of the infection and reduce the severity of symptoms; however, these medications are most effective when taken as soon as the rash appears. Pain medications, wet compresses and calamine lotion and oatmeal baths can help relieve pain and itching.

If you’ve had chickenpox in the past and think you might have developed shingles, be sure to call your doctor to get started on treatment and the path to recovery, right away.

Medically reviewed in February 2018.

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