While it can be annoying and even painful, chickenpox is also something of a rite of passage. Most of us who get it get it when we’re children, which isn’t fun by any means, but at least it’s usually mild and doesn’t last all that long – we endure that annoying, itchy rash for a few days, and then it’s gone. What you may not realize, though, is that chickenpox is never really gone. The virus that causes chickenpox stays with you even after you’re no longer symptomatic. It also can cause shingles later in life, which is why if you’ve had chickenpox in your youth and you’re over age 50, you may want to consider getting the shingles vaccine.
“While chickenpox and shingles are the same virus, they’re definitely not the same illness,” said Mary Kathryn Cockrill from Blount Memorial’s Infection Control team, sharing information from the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC). “Chickenpox, of course, has the bumpy rash that spreads all over the body. Shingles, on the other hand, develops in patches or bands of raised bumps usually on one side of the face or trunk. These bumps can be itchy, too, but also can develop into small, fluid-filled blisters, which can be extremely itchy and even painful. Shingles tends to last longer, too, with most people experiencing symptoms for at least three weeks,” Cockrill explained.
Just as the illnesses differ, the symptoms and contagion levels of chickenpox and shingles do, as well. “Chickenpox can be spread by either direct contact with the fluid of skin lesions or simply by breathing in the viral particles that come from the blisters,” Cockrill said. “A person who has chickenpox can spread the disease even before they develop the rash, and remain contagious until after all their blisters have formed scabs. While chickenpox, or varicella, is highly contagious, shingles, or herpes zoster, is not,” Cockrill continued. “It’s important to note, however, that even though you cannot pass shingles to another person, you can still pass chickenpox on – which means someone with an infectious shingles rash can spread chickenpox to another person if that person has never had chickenpox before. Regardless of whether you encounter someone with chickenpox or shingles, the exposure window is the same. It takes between 10 days to 21 days for someone who has been exposed to either virus to develop chickenpox,” she said.
As for vaccines, Cockrill says there are some options. “If you have not had chickenpox, there’s a good chance you received either the varicella vaccine or a combination vaccine called MMRV, which inoculates you against measles, mumps, rubella and varicella,” Cockrill said. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that healthy adults age 60 or older get the shingles vaccine. While vaccination is the best way to avoid both chickenpox and shingles, it’s important to also remember to avoid direct contact with anyone who is dealing with either illness. If you have either form of the virus, always cover the rash, and avoid touching or scratching it as much as possible to reduce the rash’s spread. Also, remember to clean your hands often to kill as much of the virus as you can,” she explained.