Medical Review By: Ted Schiff, MD
Shingles is miserable. The painful, fluid-filled blisters can last weeks before they crust over and disappear, and in some people, nerve pain lasts even longer. If you have shingles, you probably wouldn’t wish it on anyone. While you’re waiting for the outbreak to end, if you have children or grandchildren you may be asking yourself, “Is shingles contagious to kids and babies?”
The answer is no, you can’t give them — or other adults — shingles. But that doesn’t mean there is no risk in exposing them. Kids can be vulnerable for another, surprising reason. Here’s what you need to know about shingles transmission.
The relationship between shingles and chickenpox
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), a member of the herpes family of viruses. What many people don’t realize is that this same virus also causes chickenpox. If you had chickenpox as a child, you’re vulnerable to shingles as an adult.
Here’s how it works: When you recover from chickenpox, the virus retreats to nerve tissues near the spinal cord, where it typically remains dormant (inactive). But it can be reactivated later in life, possibly by stress, illness, a weakened immune system or physical injury. When that happens, it moves along the nerves to the skin and causes an outbreak of shingles.
Once you’ve had chickenpox, you become vulnerable to shingles for the rest of your life.
How to avoid spreading the VZV virus
While kids can’t catch shingles from you, they could catch chickenpox if they’ve never had it or were never fully vaccinated against it (with both doses of the chickenpox vaccine). Once they develop chickenpox, they will also be vulnerable to shingles later in life.
For someone to catch chickenpox from a case of shingles, shingles has to be in the active phase, when the blisters are oozing fluid. There’s no risk of transmission before blisters appear or after they have dried and crusted over. Passing it on requires direct contact with the blister fluid — say, when you cuddle your grandson and his skin touches your rash. Fortunately, the VZV virus is less contagious when an adult has shingles than when a child has chickenpox.
Preventing the spread of VZV when you have shingles is relatively simple: Cover your blisters during the oozing phase with nonstick sterile bandages. Hydrocolloid adhesive pads, available at many drugstores, are a smart choice. Avoid scratching the blisters.
While you’re contagious, avoid contact with people for whom chickenpox poses an increased risk, including:
- Pregnant women who’ve never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine
- Premature or low-birth weight infants
- Anyone with a weakened immune system, including people undergoing chemotherapy or taking immunosuppressive drugs and people with HIV
Preventing shingles and chickenpox
Children who haven’t had chickenpox can avoid falling sick by getting both doses of the chickenpox vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends getting the first dose at 12 to 15 months old and the second dose between the ages of 4 and 6.
Teenagers and adults who’ve never had chickenpox may also benefit from getting the vaccine.
The CDC recommends older adults get a shingles vaccine since the risk of shingles and the long-term nerve pain that sometimes follows (known as post-herpetic neuralgia) increases with age. The Shingrix vaccine, which has been in use since 2017, is the preferred shingles vaccine for adults age 50 and over. It has been shown to be 97% effective in preventing shingles in adults ages 50 to 69 who received two doses. An older shingles vaccine, Zostavax, is being phased out.
Shingles treatment tips
Shingles usually lasts two to four weeks and generally doesn’t recur. If you can get a diagnosis from your doctor within the first three days — not always easy, since your only symptoms may be a burning/tingling/itching sensation on one area of the skin — an oral antiviral medication may shorten the duration and the severity of the outbreak.
An over-the-counter or prescription pain medication can help ease the pain. For the itching, try cool compresses, calamine lotion and lukewarm baths with store-bought or homemade colloidal oatmeal (oats ground into a fine powder) sprinkled in.
Article Written By: Jennifer L. Cook, an award-winning editor and writer whose work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, Prevention, Consumer Reports on Health, and Woman’s Day and on Investopedia.com and Bottomlineinc.com.