Chicken Pox and Shingles
Chicken pox and shingles are both caused by varicella-zoster, a member of the herpes virus family. Chicken pox is an uncomfortable, highly contagious disease. The good news is that 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
Chicken pox is spread via coughing and sneezing as well as direct contact with the fluid in someone else's chicken pox blisters. The incubation period can last from 10 to 21 days. Other symptoms include:
- Slight fever
- Body aches
- Loss of appetite
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Sore throat
- After 1-2 days, a rash that begins on chest or back
The rash first appears as red spots, then rapidly forms betwen 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. Sometimes itching accompanies the rash.
A person is contagious 1-2 days before the rash appears and until all blisters have formed crusts. 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 anyone who has not had chicken pox. For college students, it is administered in two injections 4 to 8 weeks apart. Contact the IU Health Center medical clinic for more information.
There is no cure for chicken pox. But if you see a doctor early, antiviral drugs can sometimes help. You can also relieve the symptoms of chicken pox with these treaments:
- Over-the-counter antihistamines or colloidal oatmeal baths to relieve itching
- Tylenol or ibuprofen to reduce fever and pain
- Avoid aspirin
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.
A person with shingles can transmit the chicken pox virus to anyone who has not had chicken pox 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.
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.