Chickenpox and shingles are two diseases that are both caused by the varicella-zoster virus. People who have been sick with chickenpox are also at risk for shingles. Initial exposure to the varicella-zoster virus usually occurs during childhood and causes chickenpox. The chickenpox symptoms resolve, but the virus remains resident and can reactivate later in life, causing shingles. Vaccinations are available for both chickenpox and shingles.
Though chickenpox and shingles are caused by the same virus, chickenpox is easily spread from person to person, through the air, or contact with chickenpox blisters, while shingles is not contagious. Once a person has been infected with chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus remains dormant in the nerve roots. In some people, especially those with weakened immune systems or the elderly, the virus reactivates and causes shingles rather than a second outbreak of chickenpox.
People with chickenpox develop a fever, body aches, and hundreds of blisters. The blisters typically heal within a week. Those suffering from shingles will notice a rash on one side of their bodies that was preceded by pain, tingling, and numbness. The pain of shingles can persist long after the rash has disappeared, a condition known as post-herpetic neuralgia. Like chickenpox, shingles is usually only contracted once.
Chickenpox is commonly associated with children, but adolescents and adults can also contract the disease, though their symptoms are often more severe. Shingles typically manifests itself in individuals who are over the age of 60 or who have a condition that stresses the immune system, such as cancer. Certain medications can also trigger a shingles outbreak.
The treatment options for chickenpox and shingles are distinct. Chickenpox rarely requires medical intervention with the exception of an antihistamine to soothe the skin irritation. Shingles will also resolve on its own after several weeks, but oral antiviral drugs and pain medications are often prescribed to relieve pain and shorten the disease’s duration. Chickenpox and shingles patients are commonly advised to rest at home.
Although chickenpox and shingles are generally not life-threatening conditions, certain populations are vulnerable to developing serious complications. Teenagers, pregnant women, and people who take steroid medications can all develop complications from chickenpox. Shingles can cause skin infections, vision loss, and neurological problems.
There are vaccinations available for both chickenpox and shingles. The chickenpox vaccine is administered in two doses to individuals who have never had the disease. Anyone who is at least 60 years old should consider getting vaccinated for shingles. The shingles vaccine is believed to prevent shingles in at least 50 percent of the people who are vaccinated and reduce the severity of symptoms in those who do get the disease.