The Link Between Chickenpox and Shingles

Despite its silly name, chickenpox is a serious disease. Caused by the varicella zoster virus, the infection can produce hundreds of blisters all over your body that itch with annoying persistence. It’s highly contagious and was very prevalent in the United States for many years. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in the early 1990s, about four million people got chickenpox annually, hospitalizing up to 13,000 and killing about 150 each year. 

But in 1995, a vaccine became available that has prevented an estimated 3.5 million cases of chickenpox, 9,000 hospitalizations, and 100 deaths. This is great news for many people, but what about those who had the disease as a child? 

Dinash Yanamadula, MD, at Princeton Pain & Spine Institute in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, has the answer. Read on to learn what to do if you’ve had chickenpox, what to do if you haven’t, and how shingles factors into the conversation.

I’ve never had chickenpox, so now what?

If you haven’t had chickenpox and have not been vaccinated, consider yourself fortunate. The first thing you need to do is get vaccinated.

Young children should get their first shot when they’re about a year old, and the second shot somewhere between the ages of 4-6. Adults should get two shots about a month apart, and no more shots will be needed in the future.

If you’re pregnant, nursing, or immunocompromised, you shouldn’t get the chickenpox vaccination. 

I’ve had chickenpox, so now what?

If you’ve already had chickenpox ― and maybe still have a couple of scars to prove it ― then you need to know about shingles. Both diseases stem from the same virus.

Although your childhood case of chickenpox means you won’t get it again, it won’t immunize you from shingles. The virus stays in your body, lying dormant in your nerves until something triggers it. Although what triggers it is unclear, scientists believe the virus may be awakened by allergies or a weakened immune system. 

In general, shingles shots aren’t given until a person reaches age 50. If you’re age 50 or older, Dr. Yanamadula can give you a shingles shot to help prevent shingles or lessen the severity if you do get it. You won’t need more shots in the future.

I have shingles, so now what?

The first symptoms of shingles generally show up as pain and itching, even before you notice any visible signs. That’s because the virus has been sleeping in your nerves — typically in one area, such as your face or the side of your torso — so you will likely feel the nerve pain before the rash begins. 

When the rash begins, the itching, burning, and sensitivity will likely intensify. The rash will generally dissipate within a week or so, but the pain and discomfort can linger for up to a month. 

Those who have received the shingles vaccination can still get the disease, but it’s almost always a mild case that comes and goes with much fewer complications.

What are the complications from shingles?

Because shingles affects your nerves, there’s a chance they will be damaged during the course of your shingles experience and not fully recover. This is called postherpetic neuralgia. Some people gradually get past it over time, and some don’t. 

The shingles vaccine has been shown to reduce the chances of suffering from postherpetic neuralgia by 65-70%, so it’s clearly worth considering.

Can shingles be treated?

While shingles can’t be cured ― it just has to run its course ― we can keep you comfortable while you have it. 

Dr. Yanamadula offers a variety of treatments depending on your symptoms, including:

Bottom line

If you’ve never had chickenpox, you can’t get shingles. However, you can still get chickenpox. Get vaccinated.

If you’ve had chickenpox, you can’t get it again. However, you can get shingles. Get vaccinated.

If you have shingles, you can’t give shingles to other people. However, you can give them chickenpox if they haven’t had it or haven’t been vaccinated. So get treatment and then stay home as much as possible. 

No matter which stage of this virus cycle you’re in, we can help. To learn more, book an appointment online or over the phone with Princeton Pain & Spine Institute today.

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