6 Things Adults Should Know About Chickenpox and Shingles
Chickenpox and its viral cousin, shingles, are more dangerous to adults and teens than to most children
Chickenpox is just a childhood illness, right?
Wrong. Recent news reports highlight the dangers, not just to kids, but also adults and teens. In December, Angelina Jolie missed the premiere of her film “Unbroken” after contracting the disease. “It was so absurd,” she told The Today Show.
Then in January, the United Kingdom's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists issued new recommendations for women of child-bearing age, who can transmit chickenpox to their unborn children.
Here are six things you should know about how the itchy, uncomfortable rash affects adults.
1. It hits adults harder
Chickenpox, also called varicella, is a highly contagious viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. Symptoms include a blistering rash, fever, fatigue, irritability, aches and pains that last from five to 10 days.
Although most cases are mild, adults and teens (as well as babies) are more likely than children to require hospitalization, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Sufferers can also end up with pneumonia, encephalitis, cerebellar ataxia or bacterial infections.
“A person who has been exposed to chickenpox should consult their doctor if they have an immunocompromising condition, such as cancer or HIV or are taking medications like steroids that weaken the immune system, if they don't know if they have ever had chickenpox or been vaccinated, or if they are pregnant,” says Stephanie Bialek, MD, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
2. You're probably immune — unless you're not
Fortunately, less than five percent of adults are susceptible. However, younger adults are more likely than older adults to catch chickenpox because the vaccine is given in two separate doses, and some young people haven't received the second dose.
Certain immigrant groups are also at risk. “Chickenpox is less common in childhood in many tropical countries,” says Bialek. People born outside the US “should discuss the need for chickenpox vaccine with their medical provider.”
3. Adults can get vaccinated
Almost everyone who has never had chickenpox should receive the vaccine, which is safe and nearly 90% effective, according to the Mayo Clinic. Exceptions include pregnant women and people who have weakened immune systems or certain allergies.
Even if you’ve already had the disease, it's possible — though uncommon — to catch it a second time. Consider getting vaccinated if you:
- go to college
- travel internationally
- work in a health care field
- work or live with people who have weak immune systems
- work or live with children, either at home or in a school or child-care facility
- work or live in a prison, military base or wherever people live in close quarters
- are a woman of childbearing age who isn’t pregnant
In addition, “all pregnant women should be tested to see if they are susceptible to chickenpox and if they are, they should receive the chickenpox vaccine after their baby is delivered,” says Bialek.
4. Shingles comes from chickenpox
Shingles is a related disease that only strikes people who have had chickenpox. It occurs when the varicella-zoster virus, which remains dormant near your spinal cord and brain, wakes up and makes you sick again.
Symptoms include pain and numbness, followed by a blistering rash. It takes weeks to go away. It won't kill you, but it can damage body organs and leave you with chronic pain.
You can't catch shingles from another person. However, if you come into contact with fluid from their blisters, you can catch chickenpox if you aren't already immune.
5. Shingles may be on the rise
Nearly a third of all Americans will eventually get shingles. The United States has about a million cases per year, mostly people over age 50 with weakened immune systems, according to the CDC.
“There are some indications that cases of shingles are increasing,” says Bialek. “We don't fully understand why that is.”
The CDC recommends you receive the shingles vaccine if you are over 60, because it cuts your risk of infection in half and your risk of chronic pain by two-thirds.
6. You can get treated for both
Antiviral medicines exist for chickenpox and shingles. While shingles is incurable, it can be managed. Along with antivirals, your doctor might prescribe anti-pain medication. Visit your doctor as soon as possible after you notice the rash, when treatments are most effective.
Ask your doctor before you take aspirin, as it can cause Reye Syndrome, a rare condition that occurs mostly in children and teens and causes swelling of the liver and brain.
You can take steps at home to alleviate the itchiness, like calamine lotion, oatmeal baths and antihistamines. Just don’t scratch!
Bialek cautions home treatments are no substitute for medication. “Antiviral medicines work against the viruses. Home remedies are for dealing with the itchiness.”