What is shingles?  Is shingles contagious? Can it be prevented? Can my child get shingles?  As a telephone triage nurse at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, these are just a few of the questions I’ve received from concerned parents.

Shingles is also known as herpes zoster virus – the same virus that causes chickenpox.  If you have had chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in nerve cells, and  can reactivate, causing shingles.  The virus is spread when a person has direct contact with the sores or lesions of the shingles rash.  You cannot get shingles from someone with shingles, but this exposure can cause chickenpox if you’ve never had chickenpox.

Shingles can occur in any age group, but is more likely in those who have had chickenpox before age one, are over 50 years old, or have a weakened immune system.    The incidence in children is low, but children who have weakened immune systems may experience the same, or more severe, symptoms as adults. Like adults, children most at risk for shingles are those who had chickenpox during the first year of life – or whose mothers had chickenpox very late during pregnancy. The risk of complications and severity of symptoms increases with age. 

Pain, described as burning, tingling, numbness, shock-like or itchy, on one side of the body is usually the first symptom of shingles.  A red rash typically begins a few days after the onset of the pain.  The rash usually develops into small blisters over 3 to 5 days, and progressively dries and crusts over.  The sores heal within 2 to 4 weeks.

There’s no cure for shingles, but prompt treatment with prescription antiviral drugs can speed healing and reduce your risk of complications.   It is best to start these medications within 72 hours of the onset of symptoms and before the blisters appear.  Your physician may also recommend antihistamines, pain medicines, and topical numbing agents. 

The chickenpox (varicella) vaccine and the shingles (varicella zoster) vaccine both help prevent shingles.  The varicella vaccine has become a routine childhood immunization to prevent chickenpox.  There is no guarantee you won’t get chickenpox or shingles with this vaccine, but it can lower your risk and reduce complications and severity. The CDC recommends shingles immunization for people 60 years old and older.   Like the chickenpox vaccine, the shingles vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t get shingles, but the vaccine can reduce risk and severity.

Even if you’ve experienced shingles, the shingles vaccine will help prevent further occurrences of the disease.

Most importantly, immunize your children to prevent chickenpox. If you are over 60 years old, ask your doctor about the shingles vaccine. And if you suspect you have shingles, see your doctor as soon as possible because early diagnosis and treatment can decrease severity. 

By Paula Losito, Answer Line nurse at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.  For more information about shingles, contact our Family Resource Center.

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