Many pregnant women have written to us expressing concern about being exposed to a family member who has shingles. Usually it is their parent or grandparent, or another older adult who has the virus. However, did you know that children can get shingles, too?
When my daughter was in fourth grade, she came home from school with a tiny rash on her back about the size of a quarter, complaining of pain and exhaustion. I had never seen a rash like that before; it was a little clump of tiny bumps. Sure enough, her pediatrician diagnosed it as shingles. I was shocked, as I never associated shingles with kids. Although it isn’t common, it does happen, and the risk of getting singles increases with age. My daughter had a mild case, and after about 2 weeks she was on the mend. She was lucky – it can be very painful and last longer.
What causes shingles?
Shingles (formally known as Herpes Zoster) is caused by the Varicella Zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Only someone who has had chickenpox – or, rarely, has gotten the chickenpox vaccine – can get shingles, according to the CDC. The chickenpox virus stays in your body and can re-appear at a later date, often many years later. When it reappears, it does not return as chickenpox – it comes back as shingles.
How common is shingles?
My daughter had chickenpox (the disease) when she was four years old. At that time, the vaccine was not yet available. It is far less common to develop shingles if your child has had the chickenpox vaccine. By vaccinating your child against chickenpox you will decrease her chances of getting shingles later in life.
At least 1 million people a year in the United States get shingles. Shingles is far more common in people 50 years of age and older. It also occurs more in people whose immune systems are weakened because of a disease such as cancer, or drugs such as steroids or chemotherapy.
Can you catch shingles from someone who has shingles?
No, you can’t catch shingles from another person who has shingles. However, a person who has never had chickenpox (or the chickenpox vaccine) could get chickenpox from someone with shingles. However, this is not very common. Shingles is not spread through the air and infection can only occur after direct contact with the rash when it is in the blister-phase. A person with shingles is not contagious before the blisters appear or after they scab over.
If you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant…
• First, get a blood test to find out if you’re immune to chickenpox. If you’re not immune, you can get a vaccine. It’s best to wait 1 month after the vaccine before getting pregnant.
• If you’re already pregnant, don’t get the vaccine until after you give birth. In the meantime, avoid contact with anyone who has chickenpox or shingles.
• If you’re not immune to chickenpox and you come into contact with someone who has it, tell your provider right away. Your provider can treat you with medicine that has chickenpox antibodies. It’s important to get treatment within 4 days after you’ve come into contact with chickenpox to help prevent the infection or make it less serious.
• Tell your provider if you come in contact with a person who has shingles. Your provider may want to treat you with an antiviral medication.
What does all this mean for your child?
• If you think your child may have shingles, contact her health care provider. Prompt treatment may shorten the duration and keep pain to a minimum.
• Get your child the chickenpox vaccine to protect her against chickenpox, and so that she has a far less chance of getting shingles in the future.
Learn more about shingles exposure and chickenpox during pregnancy.
If you have questions, send them to AskUs@machofdimes.org.
View other posts in the series on Delays and Disabilities: How to get help for your child.