Chickenpox may be a childhood disease, but it can come back to haunt you in later life as shingles.
What happens is the chickenpox virus can enter the nervous system, lie dormant for years and then reactivate, traveling along nerve pathways in the skin to produce shingles. Both come from the same virus but are different illnesses.
“Older individuals who contract chickenpox are more likely to become seriously ill and have disease complications than children,” said registered nurse Sandra Morgan, immunization coordinator with Chaffee County Public Health.
Children, beginning at 12 months of age, as well as adults without other evidence of immunity, should be vaccinated with two doses of varicella (chickenpox) vaccine. Special consideration should be given to vaccinating adults who have close contact with people at high risk for severe disease, such as health care workers and immunocompromised people, or those at high risk of exposure, such as teachers, college students, military personnel, international travelers and non-pregnant women of childbearing age.
Chickenpox appears as a rash that looks like a blister and usually occurs in children but can be more severe in older adults and can harm unborn babies.
Shingles is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus that can appear in adults with weakened immune systems, but it can affect anyone who has had chickenpox.
Shingles herpes zoster produces a rash that most commonly appears on one side of the trunk of the body.
In its 2018 zoster vaccine recommendations, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices states that zoster vaccine (Shingrix, GlaxoSmithKline) may be used in adults age 50 or older, irrespective of prior receipt of the varicella (chickenpox) vaccine or live zoster vaccine (Zostavax, Merck).
Shingles isn’t life threatening but it can be very painful, and vaccines can help reduce the risk of getting it.
Pain is usually the first sign of shingles, followed by itching, rash, fluid-filled blisters that are similar to chickenpox blisters on one side of the body, sensitivity to light, fatigue, fever, headache and pain or rash near the eye. If untreated the eye infection can cause permanent eye damage.
Anyone suspecting they may have shingles should contact a doctor promptly since early treatment can shorten the infection or lessen the risk of complications, which can be worse in those age 60 and older.
While shingles is part of a group of viruses called herpes, shingles is called herpes zoster. The virus that causes chickenpox and shingles, however, is not the same as the virus that causes cold sores or genital herpes, a sexually transmitted infection.
The virus that causes shingles can be passed to anyone who is not immune to chickenpox, usually through direct contact with sores from the rash, but the person exposed to the infection will develop chickenpox and not shingles. Shingles itself cannot be transmitted.
Vaccines can help both chickenpox and shingles. They are the chickenpox (varicella) and the shingles (varicella-zoster) vaccine.
Chickenpox vaccines are a routine childhood vaccine but are also recommended for adults who never had chickenpox.
The vaccine doesn’t guarantee a person won’t get ether disease, but it does reduce the chances of complications and the severity of the diseases.