You can’t get shingles if you’ve never had chickenpox, but it’s important to recognize the risks associated with the diseases.
Shingles and chickenpox are strains of the same virus, the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). Chickenpox is the precursor to shingles. It’s a contagious rash that occurs mostly in young people.
As you age, you’re more susceptible to a shingles outbreak. This outbreak is caused by a reactivation of the previously dormant chickenpox virus.
In this article, we’ll go over why you can still get chickenpox if you’ve never had shingles. We’ll also compare the two in depth and discuss who should get the shingles vaccine.
Shingles are a reactivation of the same virus that caused chickenpox. Therefore, you need to have had exposure to VZV earlier in life.
Chickenpox tends to be more prevalent in children and is transmitted very quickly through groups. Even so, it’s still a real risk for adults. Chickenpox is a highly infectious disease that can spread to about 90 percent of unvaccinated household contacts of a person who has it.
Risk factors for adults
You’re at higher risk for contracting chickenpox if:
- you live with unvaccinated children
- you work in a school or childcare space
- you spend more than 15 minutes with an infected person (true for either either shingles or chickenpox)
- you’ve touched the rash on a person who has it
- you’ve touched something a person with chickenpox has used recently
You’re at higher risk of experiencing complications from chickenpox if:
- you’re pregnant and have never had chickenpox
- your immune system is impaired (from medication, bone marrow transplant, or disease)
- you’re on steroid medication
When adults develop chickenpox, they may notice flu-like symptoms before the rash. Adults actually may have stronger a reaction to chickenpox than children.
The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases says adults are 25 times more likely to die from chickenpox than children. Therefore, it’s extremely important to talk with a doctor to see how you can protect yourself from chickenpox if you’ve neither been vaccinated nor exposed.
There are a couple of things to consider before pursuing the shingles vaccine.
Who is susceptible to developing shingles?
According to the CDC, more than
It’s important to note that even if you don’t remember having the disease, it may be lying dormant in your body. Therefore, much of America’s population of people 40 and older are susceptible to developing shingles.
When is the right time to get the vaccine?
If you’re age 50 or older, you’re encouraged to get the shingles vaccine, called Shingrix.
What if you’re over 50 and have never had chickenpox?
If you’re over 50 and confident that you’ve never had exposure to chickenpox, a primary doctor can run a blood test to determine your level of chickenpox immunity.
If it turns out that you’ve never been exposed to chickenpox, consider getting vaccinated against the virus to protect against any future exposure.
Most adults between 30 and 50 years old don’t need to worry about racing to get either the chickenpox or shingles vaccine.
Consider getting the shingles vaccine before turning 50 if you:
- work in an industry that might have higher exposure to chickenpox, like healthcare or teaching
- are pregnant
- are HIV-positive
Do not get a chickenpox vaccine if you:
- are pregnant (until after you give birth)
- previously had a life-threatening allergic reaction to a previous dose of chickenpox vaccine or any ingredient of the vaccine (like gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin)
- are moderately or severely ill (wait until you get better)
Talk with a doctor before getting a chickenpox vaccine if you:
- have HIV or another condition that affects your immune system
- are taking a medication that affects your immune system for 2 weeks or longer
- have cancer of any kind or are taking medications for cancer
- have recently had a blood transfusion
There are several differences between chickenpox and shingles.
Both diseases have similar symptoms, although the severity can vary. They cause uncomfortable and itchy rashes and can be accompanied by flu-like symptoms, including:
- loss of appetite
Before shingles appear, you’ll normally develop:
- pain in the body
- itching and/or tingling
The shingles rash typically starts as a single strip rash around the side of the body. It may eventually break out to another nearby area if you spread it by scratching.
According to the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, blisters from chickenpox will disappear within 1 week. The pain and rash associated with shingles take a little longer to disappear, typically 3 to 5 weeks.
Chickenpox occurs when one is exposed to the VZV virus. Exposure occurs through spending time with someone who has it or touching their scabs or wounds.
Shingles develop when a previous exposure to the VZV virus reactivates in the body. This reactivation generally occurs because of a dip in the immune system. The immune system can dip due to aging, exposure to other diseases, or medication.
Chickenpox is passed by:
- directly touching the blisters, saliva, or mucus of someone who has it
- through the air by coughing and sneezing
- indirect spread by touching recently contaminated items like clothing or bedsheets
Shingles itself isn’t contagious, as it’s caused by a resurgence of the same virus.
That being said, a person with shingles can still transmit VZV to someone who’s never had chickenpox before. This transmission can occur through direct contact with the blisters of a person with shingles.
Someone with shingles can no longer pass the virus once their blisters have formed scabs.
An important piece of treating both chickenpox and shingles is managing your symptoms. The illness will need to run its course. You can manage symptoms of the rash and soothe itching skin by:
- taking lukewarm baths
- applying unscented lotions
- wearing lightweight, soft, and loose-fitting clothing
A doctor might prescribe antihistamine medications or topical ointment.
For both diseases, doctors may prescribe antiviral medications to fight complications that the virus may cause. While the antiviral medication won’t cure you of the varicella virus, it may lessen the severity of symptoms and help your body heal faster.
If you’ve never had chickenpox and are vaccinated against the disease, you can’t get shingles. Even so, it’s believed that most people over 50 years old within the United States are vulnerable to developing shingles.
Vaccination efforts for chickenpox have been widely successful in limiting the disease. As the years go on, fewer people will be vulnerable to developing shingles.
The best way to protect yourself against developing shingles or adult chickenpox is through vaccination. Talk with a doctor to see if you’re eligible for either vaccine.