The varicella zoster is a two-for-one virus that can cause both chickenpox and shingles. Fortunately, there are vaccines for both conditions to help you avoid the fever, rash, and pain that typically accompany the infections.
At Princeton Pain & Spine Institute in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, Dinash Yanamadula, MD, and our team offer chickenpox and shingles vaccinations for all our patients at risk for contracting the infections. In this blog, Dr. Yanamadula explains the factors that make you more susceptible to developing them and provides guidance on whether you need either or both shots.
Although caused by the same virus, chickenpox and shingles develop and present differently.
Chickenpox is extremely contagious. The red rash shows up about 10-21 days after you’ve been exposed to an infected person. It’s transmitted through respiratory droplets sneezed or coughed into the air or by touching the blisters of an infected person.
Symptoms start off with a headache and fever, then pink or red bumps break out across the body, sometimes even in the mouth. Eventually, they scab over and fall off. If, like 99.5% of all Americans born before 1980, you had chickenpox as a child, there’s no need to get the vaccine as an adult.
If you haven’t had chickenpox or the vaccine, you should consider getting the vaccine, especially if you’re a health care professional, a teacher, or if you work around people with weakened immune systems.
Shingles aren’t contagious, and you can only get it if you’ve had chickenpox. The varicella zoster virus from your bout with chickenpox lies dormant in your spinal nerves for the rest of your life, and can reactivate at any time.
If it “awakens,” you don’t get another case of chickenpox. Insead, you get shingles, which also presents with a headache and fever, but then it progresses to chills, muscle weakness, and fatigue. Finally, the rash shows up, typically on one side of the body rather than all over. It tends to concentrate on the torso, but it may affect the face and other body parts as well.
The shingles rash is much more painful than the chickenpox version, and the pain may linger even after the rash heals. Shingles also carries the risk of lasting complications, including nerve damage called postherpetic neuropathy, which can last for months or years.
Although you can’t get shingles from an infected person, if you’ve never had chickenpox or been vaccinated for it, you may be able to contract chickenpox if you come into contact with shingles blisters.
As mentioned earlier, anyone who has had chickenpox has the varicella virus living in them, which can potentially cause shingles. However, certain circumstances may increase your chances of developing shingles.
If you never had chickenpox but did get the vaccine for it, you have a weakened version of the varicella zoster virus in you, which means it’s possible to get shingles someday. That said, your chances are much lower than those who actually endured the infection. However, we still recommend getting the shingles vaccine, because the possibility of getting shingles is still there.
Older adults have a greater chance of not only contracting shingles but also of experiencing hospitalization and complications.
If you’re suffering from diabetes, HIV, or any other condition that impacts your immune system, chances are higher that the varicella zoster virus will reactivate.
Anything that compromises your immune system leaves you vulnerable to shingles, but cancer is a particularly dangerous risk factor. According to the Journal of Infectious Diseases, having cancer increases your risk of developing shingles by 40%, and if you have leukemia or another blood-related cancer, your risk increases three-fold.
Some medications may put you at higher risk of developing shingles, including chemotherapy, prednisone or other steroids, and any other drug that affects your immune system.
If you’re fortunate enough to receive a much-needed organ or bone marrow transplant, the procedure may save your life, but it can also increase your risk of developing shingles.
If you get shingles, Dr. Yanamadula can treat your symptoms and any complications with medication and advanced technology. But the good news is that you don’t have to get shingles in the first place. If you’re a healthy adult over age 50, you’re eligible for the shingles vaccine.
Of course, if you have allergies to the vaccine, have never had chickenpox or its vaccine, currently have shingles, or are pregnant or nursing, you shouldn’t get the shingles vaccine.
If you’re concerned about chickenpox or shingles and want to discuss your options, book an appointment online or over the phone with Princeton Pain & Spine Institute today.