A bout of chickenpox used to be a rite of passage during childhood. Since the vaccine to protect against varicella zoster virus (VZV) became available, most kids can now avoid this itchy infection.
But anyone who has had chickenpox may later develop shingles — even children. The good news is that shingles is pretty rare in kids and teens with healthy immune systems.
Shingles, also called zoster or herpes zoster, is a skin rash caused by a viral infection of the nerves just below the skin. Shingles usually appears as a stripe of irritated skin and blisters on one side of the chest or back, but it can occur anywhere on the body, including on the face and near the eyes.
Many cases of shingles have mild symptoms, but more severe cases can be very painful. Luckily, kids and teens almost always have mild cases; the severe cases usually only happen in older people.
Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, so it's highly contagious, meaning it can be easy for a child to pass the virus to others who aren't immune to chickenpox. This includes anyone who hasn't already had chickenpox or gotten the chickenpox vaccine. However, if someone else gets infected, they won't get shingles. They'll get chickenpox instead.
An episode of shingles will generally run its course and disappear in less than a month. Although a shingles flare-up usually resolves on its own, treatments can reduce a child's risk of complications and help him or her heal more quickly.
Shingles and chickenpox are both caused by the varicella zoster virus. This virus is related to the herpes viruses that cause cold sores and genital herpes, which is why shingles is sometimes called herpes zoster.
After someone has had chickenpox, the virus stays in that person's nervous system for the rest of his or her life, even though the chickenpox goes away. The virus can stay there dormant, or sleeping, for years. In many people, it will never be heard from again. But in about 1 million Americans a year, it flares up and causes shingles. It is possible to get shingles more than once, although this is fairly uncommon.
Doctors aren't sure why the virus suddenly flares up again after months or years of inactivity. It could be because our immune systems become more vulnerable to infections as we age, which might explain why shingles is more common in older adults.
Children who've had chickenpox face a greater risk of developing shingles if their immune systems have been weakened by diseases such as AIDS or cancer, or by certain medications.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2009 The Nemours Foundation. All rights reserved.
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