Do you have chickenpox? You might be wondering if you can get shingles. The answer is yes, and unfortunately, it is pretty common. It is said that 1 in 3 adults in the United States could suffer from shingles later in life (CDC, 2020).
Chickenpox and shingles are both caused by the same virus called varicella-zoster virus (VZV). Shingles is a reactivation of VZV from the nerve roots that supply your skin. If you’ve had chickenpox before, the virus stays in your body for life and may become active again later in life as shingles.
Why does the virus reactivate? The reason it reactivates or comes back to life as shingles is not fully understood. However, we do know that certain events such as aging and stress or preexisting conditions that compromise or suppress the immune system (including cancer and AIDS) can make your immune system less able to fight off the virus. This gives VZV a chance to become active again and cause an outbreak of shingles in the body.
This would also indicate that it is not possible to get both chickenpox and shingles at the same time. Although the same virus causes both diseases, one would be inflicted with chickenpox before developing shingles later in life when the virus undergoes reactivation in the body. Due to this reactivation process that is required for developing shingles, it is also not possible to catch shingles from someone with shingles or from someone with chickenpox. However, one may catch chickenpox from someone with shingles if they have not had chickenpox before. The primary transmission mode is via the fluid that oozes out of the open blisters, as this fluid contains live virus. If a person who has never had chickenpox comes into contact with an open blister or the fluid from the blister, they can contract the virus and develop chickenpox.
Chickenpox and shingles sufferers both have similar symptoms, including rash, itching, pain, and fever, and flu-like symptoms. While chickenpox and shingles may look very similar, there are characteristic differences in the presentation of the rash. Chickenpox causes an itchy rash with fluid-filled blisters across the body, while shingles can cause both a painful and itchy skin rash, most often in one side of the body. Shingles can also cause severe pain in the skin that can restrict a person’s movement, and there may also be itching present in the affected area even before blisters appear. As such, it appears that chickenpox is a milder form of illness as compared to shingles.
Shingles can result in lower immunity, increasing the shingles sufferer to become susceptible to other illnesses such as pneumonia or bronchitis. Post-herpetic neuralgia is a well-known common complication caused by shingles. This condition causes mild to extreme pain that lasts for months or even years after the blisters from shingles heal. In comparison, chickenpox is not known to leave any severe complications in children, but adults with weakened immune systems may have a higher chance of developing pneumonitis from chickenpox. All these complications will severely affect the quality of life.
The good news is that there are medications available to help with the treatment of shingles. Treatment is most effective when started within 72 hours of the onset of the rash. There are several medications that a doctor may prescribe, including oral prescription antiviral medicines such as acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir, topical creams or lotions that contain calamine, lidocaine and/or capsaicin, painkillers such as codeine, ibuprofen, naproxen or acetaminophen, as well as antihistamines, antidepressants or anticonvulsants. It is also helpful to use a cool compress and bathe in cool water mixed with colloidal/ground oatmeal to help soothe the skin.
Additionally, there are also chickenpox vaccinations and shingles vaccination available that can help with disease prevention. The chickenpox vaccine can be given to young children (as young as 12 months) and adults alike and is given in 2 doses. Administering of these 2 doses varies depending on age. On the other hand, the shingles vaccine should be taken by immunocompetent individuals 50 years or older. This is typically administered in two doses 2 to 6 months apart. This should be taken regardless of whether an individual has been infected before. Both vaccines can provide a high level of protection against any form of varicella infection, as well as severe varicella.
It is important to consult your doctor as soon as possible for diagnosis and treatment if you suspect that you have either chickenpox or shingles, as these conditions are not only uncomfortable but can also lead to debilitating complications. This is especially so for:
- Individuals over 60 years old.
- Individuals who are immunocompromised (also known as having a weakened immune system, such as in the case of HIV) or are taking immunosuppressive medication (e.g. chemotherapy drugs or steroids).
- Individuals living with someone who has a weakened immune system.
- Individuals with rashes on the face or near the eye, which could lead to serious eye damage or even cause loss of sight in that eye.
Fortunately, there are a range of treatments available that a doctor can prescribe depending on the severity and duration of the disease. Prevention can also go a long way, so vaccination is also recommended whenever possible.
CDC. (2020, October 5). Clinical overview of Herpes Zoster (shingles). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved November 6, 2021