Its Responsible for Chickenpox and Shingles
Chickenpox is the primary infection. Shingles occurs years later, when the virus gets reactivated.
Disclaimer: This information isn’t a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should never rely upon this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
Varicella-Zoster Virus (HHV-3)
If you’ve ever had chickenpox, you’ve been infected by the varicella-zoster virus (HHV-3). Chickenpox is the primary infection of the varicella-zoster virus. Shingles occurs when the virus is reactivated, years later.
When you have chickenpox, the virus spreads through your bloodstream and travels up your spinal or cranial nerve cells, infecting them. It stays inactive there for years or decades, sometimes for life. As long as the virus stays latent, or inactive, it does not cause symptoms, but if the virus reactivates, you’ll end up breaking out in shingles, a painful rash.
Chickenpox Vaccine & Shingles
The chickenpox vaccine is a live, weakened version of the varicella-zoster virus. While you won’t get chickenpox if you’re vaccinated, the virus is still entering your body and will stay, inactive, in the nervous system. If you’ve been vaccinated, you have a lower chance of the virus reactivating and causing shingles, and if you do get shingles, it’s likely to be less severe than if you had chickenpox (1)
Almost 1 out of 3 Americans develop shingles in their lifetime and it’s far more common in adults over age 50 than in younger people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)(2). Fortunately, shingles outbreaks usually only happen once in your lifetime, although they can recur.
What Are the Symptoms of Shingles?
About 1 to 5 days before you get shingles, you may feel shooting mild to severe pain, burning, itching, or tingling where the rash later develops. Shingles causes a rash of blisters on the left or right side of the face or body that does not cross the midline, usually in a single stripe.
In rare cases, shingles will spread all over the body and look like chickenpox.
- The rash usually scabs over in 7 to 10 days and clears up within 2 to 4 weeks.
- You may also have a fever, headache, chills, or upset stomach with shingles.
- Shingles can be more severe for people who are immunosuppressed.
Can You Prevent Shingles?
Shingles is not contagious, but you can catch the varicella-zoster virus from someone who has shingles and this will cause chickenpox. Chickenpox, as you recall from elementary school, is highly contagious. If you got the chickenpox vaccine as a child, you have a lower chance of getting shingles as an adult (3).
There are two shingles vaccines available, zoster vaccine live (Zostavax) and recombinant zoster vaccine (Shingrix). The CDC recommends Shingrix as the preferred shingles vaccine for adults age 50 and older.
How Do You Treat Shingles?
There’s no cure for shingles, but you can use antiviral medicines to shorten the length and severity of the illness. There is conflicting evidence, but antivirals also may lower the risk of postherpetic neuralgia, a condition where the pain does not go away even after the rash heals. Taking pain relievers and using wet compresses, calamine lotion, and oatmeal baths can help relieve the itching.
- A Look at Each Vaccine: Varicella Vaccine. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. https://www.chop.edu/centers-programs/vaccine-education-center/vaccine-details/varicella-vaccine. Published August 23, 2014. Accessed April 4, 2019.
- Shingles | Overview | Herpes Zoster | CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/shingles/about/overview.html. Accessed April 1, 2019.
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30727971 Sauboin C, Holl K, Bonanni P. The impact of childhood varicella vaccination on the incidence of herpes zoster in the general population: modelling the effect of exogenous and endogenous varicella-zoster virus immunity boosting. BMC Infect Dis., 2019;19(1):126.