Chicken Pox And Shingles: The Connection And Prevention

You've probably seen the ads on television showing an ugly, oozing rash and listened to the person describing the terrible pain of shingles. The ads also state that if you've ever had chicken pox, you are at risk. Well, isn't that almost everyone?

Chicken Pox and Shingles

Chicken pox is an illness caused by the varicella-zoster virus. The disease causes a rash and itchy, fluid-filled blisters that start on the head and spread all over the body. It is very contagious and easily spreads through families, child care facilities and school class rooms. For this reason, most people get the disease as children, and most are then immune to it forever. Fortunately, a vaccine for chicken pox became available in the mid-1990s that can prevent most cases of this illness.

Shingles, also called herpes zoster, is a viral disease that causes a painful rash with blisters. It is often accompanied by fever, nausea, and general malaise.  The rash usually occurs on only one side of the body and can last for weeks. It is most common in adults over 50. Although it is in the same family of viruses as herpes simplex, it is not the same and will not cause herpes infections of the mouth or genitals.

Complications of Chicken Pox and Shingles

Chicken pox causes very few long-term side-effects. Scratching of the blisters can cause staph infections or scarring, and in rare cases, prolonged fever, pneumonia, seizures, toxic shock syndrome, encephalitis and heart or kidney inflammation can occur.

One of the most common complications of shingles is post-herpetic neuralgia, which is an intense, burning pain that persists in the area of the rash after the initial outbreak has disappeared. It usually clears up in a few weeks with no treatment, but in rare cases, it can be debilitating and last for years. Shingles can also cause serious complications of the eye, including blindness, bacterial infection of the herpes lesions, hepatitis and in very rare cases, encephalitis and death.

The Relationship Between Chicken Pox and Shingles

Shingles is thought to be caused by a reactivation of the chicken pox virus. The virus lies dormant and most commonly reappears in older adults who have lowered or compromised immune systems.  Therefore, if you had chicken pox as a child, you are susceptible. Although shingles is not contagious, if a person comes in contact with the fluid from a shingles blister, that person can come down with chicken pox if he or she has never had the disease.

Because everyone who has had chicken pox is at risk for shingles later in life, and because a vaccine was not available for children during the 1950s and 1960s, baby boomers are now one of the largest populations at risk for shingles infection.

Is Shingles Preventable?

According to the CDC,  nearly 1 out of every 3 people in the United States will develop shingles. Fortunately, you can reduce that risk by about half by getting vaccinated. Although you can still get shingles, usually the symptoms will be less severe and the duration will be shorter. The vaccine also reduces the likelihood of post-herpetic neuralgia. The CDC recommends everyone over the age 60 get the vaccine, which is a weakened version of the chicken pox vaccine, unless a person has a weakened immune system, tuberculosis, undergoing cancer treatment or other immunosuppressant therapies suffer from certain other conditions. Check with your doctor if you are unsure.

Also, if children receive the chicken pox vaccine as a child, it greatly reduces the chances of coming down with chicken pox. If the chicken pox virus is not already in a person's body, it cannot reactivate into shingles. Therefore a person has two chances to avoid or reduce the likelihood of getting this painful condition. Get vaccinated for chicken pox as a child, or get the shingles vaccine as an older adult.

For more information, contact Valley Medical Care or a similar location.