Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It spreads through contact with fluid from a chickenpox blister, or through breathing airborne viral particles. Once a person has had chickenpox, it is rare that a second outbreak will ever occur.
The virus can reactivate, however, and travel from the nervous system to the skin, causing an infection called shingles. Unlike chickenpox, which causes a widespread body rash, the blister-filled rash in a shingles outbreak usually erupts in a band, called a dermatome, on one side of the body.
Chickenpox and shingles are both caused by varicella-zoster. This is a member of the herpes virus family. Chickenpox is an uncomfortable, highly contagious and sometimes serious disease that is that generally preventable through vaccination. It’s very unusual to acquire more than once in immunocompetent persons. The bad news, however, is that the virus remains in your body and can later reactivate and become shingles.
Chickenpox is usually spread through the air by coughing or sneezing, through contact with nasopharyngeal secretions, and in cases of direct contact with the fluid from someone’s chickenpox lesions.
Most people get chicken pox when they are young, but the symptoms can be more severe among people who catch the infection when they were older. Symptoms include loss of appetite, fever, headache, tiredness, and rashes. All of these symptoms can be more taxing on the health of elderly adults.
Chickenpox usually begins with slight fever and malaise, and possibly a sore throat and/or loss of appetite. A rash of red spots that typically begins on the chest or back is noted after 1-2 days. And then, the rash appears in successive crops of varied stages of development across much of the body.
Blisters may form on your scalp, in your nose, or any other place on your body, which burst and forms scabs that can leave permanent scars, especially if scratched. Itching often accompanies the rash, and new blisters continue to form for 4-5 days with crusting of lesions noted within 6 days of formation.
Shingles, also known as zoster or herpes zoster, is a painful skin rash caused by the same virus responsible for chickenpox (the varicella-zoster virus). If you had chicken pox in the past, you can still contract shingles because, the chicken-pox virus remains in the body, lying dormant in the roots of nerves, and can reactivate many years later.
It can be reactivated in some people by fatigue, stress, illness, immune system-suppressing drugs, radiation therapy, or other such factors. A person with shingles can cause chickenpox to anyone who has not already had chickenpox or the vaccination. You cannot directly catch shingles from a shingles afflicted person.
About 1 out of 3 people in the U.S. is affected by shingles at some point in their lives, with the majority of cases occurring in people of ages 60 and older.
Shingles are less contagious than chicken pox and cannot be passed from person to person.
- Pain along the nerve where the virus resides. Pain may continue for weeks, months or years after the rash heals
- Itching and burning sensation in the skin
- possible weakness in nearby muscles
- Groups of small blisters in a generalized linear pattern
- Hypo or hyperpigmentation, and even scarring
For young healthy adults, treatment is generally supportive in nature, and it is strongly encouraged that you be seen by a health care provider as early in the course of suspected shingles as possible. Use of antiviral medications are sometimes used in the first 72 hours to reduce pain and promote healing, and Pain relievers, soothing soaks, and lotions similar to those used for chickenpox can also help with relief of symptoms.