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Chicken Pox and Shingles

Chickenpox and shingles are both caused by varicella-zoster, a member of the herpes virus family. Chickenpox is an uncomfortable, highly contagious and sometimes serious disease. The good news is that it's preventable by vaccine and it’s very unusual to acquire more than once. The bad news is the virus remains in your body and can later reactivate and become shingles.  

Chicken Pox
Symptoms

Chickenpox is spread through the air by coughing and sneezing as well as direct contact with the fluid in someone else's chickenpox blisters. The incubation period can last from 10 to 21 days. Chickenpox begins with a slight fever and tiredness.  After 1-2 days, a rash of red spots begins on the chest or back then rapidly forms between 250-500 blisters across your entire body. Blisters may form on your scalp, in your nose, or any other place. The blisters burst and form scabs. These can leave permanent scars. New blisters continue to form for 4-5 days. Itching often accompanies the rash.  A high fever and loss of appetite usually develop. 

The person is contagious 1-2 days before the rash appears and until all blisters have formed scabs. This usually takes about 6 days. Throughout all those days, the person with chickenpox should self-isolate by staying away from people and not attending class or social events.  Close contacts of the person with chickenpox who have not had the disease or have not been vaccinated against chickenpox should get the varicella vaccine within 72 hours of exposure.  If the contact is immune compromised, that person should see a health care provider right away.

Chicken Pox Prevention and Treatment

The varicella vaccination is recommended for persons who have not had chicken pox. For college students, it is administered in two injections 4 to 8 weeks apart. Contact the IU Health Center Immunization and Allergy Clinic for more information.

There is no cure for chicken pox. But if you see a health care provider early, antiviral drugs can sometimes help. You should see a health care provider if you are pregnant, the fever lasts more than 4 days or is over 102F (38.9C), or if you become extremely ill or have other complications such as difficulty breathing, stiff neck, confusion or vomiting.

You can reduce the symptoms of chickenpox with these self care treatments:

  • Over-the-counter antihistamines or colloidal oatmeal baths to relieve itching
  • Tylenol or ibuprofen to reduce fever and pain
  • Avoid aspirin
Shingles

If you've had chicken pox, the virus never leaves your body. It remains dormant in a nerve root near your spinal cord. For reasons we don't fully understand, it can be reactivated in some people by fatigue, stress, illness, immune system-supressing drugs, radiation therapy, or other factors. Shingles is most common in people over the age of 50, but anyone who has had chicken pox can get it.

Shingles Symptoms

If you've had chickenpox, the virus never leaves your body. It remains dormant in a nerve root near your spinal cord. We don't fully understand why the virus reactivates. However, risk of shingles increases with age over 50, cancer, HIV and immune suppressing medications. Shingles is most common in people over the age of 50, but anyone who has had chicken pox can get it.

Shingles Symptoms:

A person with shingles can transmit the chickenpox virus to anyone who has not had chickenpox or the varicella vaccination. You can't catch shingles from someone else, though. Symptoms include:

  • Pain along the nerve where the virus resides
  • Itching, burning, and weakness in nearby muscles
  • Groups of small blisters along the nerve

Shingles often affect only one side of the chest, back, or face, but it can occur on any part of the body. It can take two weeks for blisters to heal. Pain may continue for weeks, months, or years after the rash heals.

Shingles Treatment

A shingles vaccine is recommended for persons age 60 and older and is approved for persons age 50-59.  Antiviral medications can reduce pain and promote healing if they are used early in the development of shingles. Pain relievers and soothing soaks and lotions can also help with itching. For more severe cases, cortisone can be used to decrease pain.

For more information, please visit the CDC website http://www.cdc.gov/chickenpox/index.html