The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following chickenpox (varicella) vaccination schedules for:
The shingles (herpes zoster) vaccine (Zostavax) is FDA-approved for adults age 50 years and older with healthy immune systems. However, the CDC recommends adults 60 and older get the shingles vaccine. The CDC has not yet added the shingles vaccine to its list of recommended vaccines for adults ages 50 to 59, and some insurance companies will not pay for the vaccination for adults younger than age 60. There is no maximum age for getting the vaccine.
Chickenpox is uncomfortable and unpleasant, but most cases are relatively mild and resolve within 7 to 10 days. If you or your child has been exposed to chickenpox, contact your health care provider. In otherwise healthy people who have a low risk for complications, home remedies can help provide relief from itching and fever.
Most important, do not scratch! Scratching the blisters can cause scarring and lead to a secondary infection.
Shingles and chickenpox are both caused by a single virus of the herpes family, known as varicella-zoster virus (VZV). This is not the same virus that causes genital herpes. The word herpes comes from the Greek word "herpein," which means "to creep," a reference to a characteristic pattern of skin eruptions. VZV causes two different illnesses:
Most people get chickenpox from exposure to other people with chickenpox. The varicella virus is most often spread through sneezing, coughing, and breathing. It is so contagious that few non-immunized people escape chickenpox when they are exposed to someone with the disease.
When people with chickenpox cough or sneeze, they expel tiny droplets that carry the varicella virus. If a person who has never had chickenpox or never been vaccinated inhales these particles, the virus enters the lungs. From here it passes into the bloodstream. When it is carried to the skin it produces the typical rash of chickenpox.
People can also catch chickenpox from direct contact with a shingles rash if they have not been immunized by vaccination or by a previous bout of chickenpox. In such cases, transmission happens during the active phase when blisters have erupted but have not formed dry crusts. A person with shingles cannot transmit the virus by breathing or coughing.
Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, a member of the herpes virus family. The same virus also causes herpes zoster, or shingles, in adults. Chickenpox is extremely contagious, and can be spread by direct contact, droplet transmission, and airborne transmission. Symptoms range from fever, headache, stomach ache, or loss of appetite before breaking out in the classic pox rash. The rash can consist of several hundred small, itchy, fluid-filled blisters over red spots on the skin. The blisters often appear first on the face, trunk, or scalp and then spread to other parts of the body.
During a bout of chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus travels to nerve cells called dorsal root ganglia. These are bundles of nerves that transmit sensory information from the skin to the brain. Here, the virus can hide from the immune system and remain inactive but alive for years, often for a lifetime. This period of inactivity is called latency.
If the virus becomes active after being latent, it causes the disorder known as shingles, or herpes zoster. The virus spreads in the ganglion and to the nerves connecting to it. Nerves most often affected are those in the face or the trunk. The virus can also spread to the spinal cord and into the bloodstream.
Shingles can develop only from a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus in a person who has previously had chickenpox. People who are older or who have weakened immune system are most vulnerable. Shingles cannot be transmitted from one person to another either through the air or through direct exposure to the blisters. However, exposure to the rash in the blister phase can lead to chickenpox in susceptible people.
The varicella-zoster virus belongs to a group of herpes viruses that includes 8 viruses that cause human disease (as well as more than 80 strains that can infect various animals).
Herpes viruses are similar in shape and size and reproduce within the structure of a cell. The particular cell depends upon the specific virus. Human herpes viruses include herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), which usually causes cold sores, and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2), which usually causes genital herpes. Cytomegalovirus (CMV), which causes mononucleosis-like illness and retinitis, and Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV), the cause of classic mononucleosis, are also human herpes viruses.
All herpes viruses share some common properties, including a pattern of active symptoms followed by latent inactive periods that can last for months, years, or even a lifetime.
Chickenpox typically strikes children under 10 years of age. Since the introduction of the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine in 1995, the number of chickenpox cases has dramatically declined.
Chickenpox usually occurs in late winter and early spring months. It can also be transmitted from direct contact with the open blisters associated with either chickenpox or shingles.
A person with chickenpox can transmit the disease from about 2 days before the appearance of the spots until the end of the blister stage. This period lasts about 5 to 7 days. Once dry scabs form, the disease is unlikely to spread.
Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk for shingles later in life. Certain factors increase the risk for such outbreaks.
Sometimes, the drugs used to treat these conditions suppress the immune system and increase the risk for shingles. Drug treatments that may increase risk include:
Current guidelines recommend against herpes zoster vaccination for people with weakened immune systems. However, some research suggests that vaccination may be safe for people with autoimmune disorders and those who take immunosuppressant drugs.
Chickenpox (varicella) rarely causes complications, but it is not always harmless. It can cause hospitalization and, in rare cases, death. The major long-term complication of varicella is the later reactivation of the herpes zoster virus and the development of shingles.
Certain factors put people at higher risk for complications of the varicella-zoster virus:
Aside from itching, the complications described below are usually rare.
In encephalitis, seizures and coma can occur. Meningitis and encephalitis are very serious conditions that require immediate medical treatment.
In very rare cases, herpes zoster is associated with Stevens-Johnson syndrome, an extensive and serious condition in which widespread blisters cover mucous membranes and large areas of the body.
Herpes zoster can also cause a severe infection in the retina called acute retinal necrosis syndrome. In such cases, visual loss can develop. Although this complication usually follows a herpes outbreak in the face, it can occur after an outbreak in any part of the body.
The time between exposure to the virus and eruption of symptoms is called the incubation period. For chickenpox, this period is 10 to 20 days. Fever, headache, swollen glands, and other flu-like symptoms often develop before the typical rash appears. Fevers are low grade in most children. However, some fevers can reach 105°F (40.5°C).
These symptoms subside once the rash breaks out. One or more tiny raised red bumps appear first, most often on the face, chest, or abdomen. They become larger within a few hours and spread quickly (sprout), eventually forming small blisters on a red base. The numbers of blisters vary widely. Some people have only a few spots, others can develop hundreds. Each blister is filled with clear fluid that becomes cloudy in several days.
It takes about 4 days for each blister to dry out and form a scab. During its course, the rash itches, sometimes severely. Usually separate crops of blisters occur over 4 to 7 days, the entire disease process lasting 7 to 10 days.
Shingles nearly always occurs in adults. Usually two, and sometimes three, identifiable symptom stages occur:
Sometimes pain develops without a rash, a condition known as zoster sine herpete.
This is a picture of herpes zoster (shingles) on the neck and cheek. The same virus that causes chickenpox is responsible for outbreaks of shingles. Outbreaks of shingles often follow the distribution of nerves in the skin. This distribution pattern is called a dermatome (see the "dermatomes" picture).
Both chickenpox (varicella) and shingles (zoster) can usually be diagnosed by symptoms alone. If a diagnosis is still unclear after a physical examination, laboratory diagnostic tests may be required. These tests use samples of fluid taken from the blister. They are generally used to distinguish between varicella-zoster and herpes simplex viruses.
In the active rash stage, shingles may be confused with herpes simplex, particularly in young adults, if the blisters occur on the buttocks or around the mouth. Herpes simplex, however, does not usually generate chronic pain.
A diagnosis may be difficult if herpes zoster takes a non-typical course in the face, such as with Bell palsy or Ramsay Hunt syndrome, or if it affects the eye or causes fever and delirium.
There are two types of varicella vaccines:
The live-virus varicella vaccine (Varivax) produces persistent immunity against chickenpox. The vaccine can prevent chickenpox or reduce the severity of the illness if it is used within 3 days, and possibly up to 5 days, after exposure to the infection.
The childhood chickenpox vaccine can also be given as part of a combination vaccine (ProQuad) that combines measles, mumps, rubella (together called MMR), and varicella in one product. However, the CDC advises that combining varicella and MMR vaccinations into one shot doubles the risk for febrile (fever-related) seizures in children ages 12 to 23 months compared to giving separate MMR and varicella injections.
The combination varicella and MMR vaccine is usually recommended for the second dose, in children ages 4 to 6 years, as it is not associated with an increased risk for febrile seizures in this age group. Children who are at higher risk for seizures due to a personal or family medical history should generally receive the MMR and varicella vaccines separately.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends that children receive two doses of the chickenpox vaccine with:
For children who have previously received one dose of the chickenpox vaccine, the ACIP recommends that they receive a "catch-up" second dose during their regular doctor's visit. This second dose can be given at any time as long as it is at least 3 months after the first dose. Studies indicate that the odds of developing chickenpox are significantly lower in children who receive two doses of the vaccine compared to those who receive only one.
Children most at risk for having chickenpox after having been vaccinated only one time are ages 8 to 12 years and have generally been vaccinated at least 5 years before their current chickenpox infection.
The CDC recommends that every healthy adult without a known history of chickenpox be vaccinated. Adults should receive 2 doses of the vaccine, 4 to 8 weeks apart. Adults in the following groups should especially consider vaccination:
As with other live-virus vaccines, the chickenpox vaccine is not recommended for:
People who have had previous allergic reactions to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin should talk with their healthcare provider concerning the vaccine.
People who cannot be vaccinated but who are exposed to chickenpox receive immune globulin antibodies against varicella virus. This helps prevent complications of the disease if they become infected.
The herpes zoster (shingles) vaccine (Zostavax) was originally approved for adults ages 60 years and older. In 2011, the FDA lowered the recommended age for Zostavax to 50. Because the vaccine contains live virus, it is not recommended for people with weakened immune systems.
Although the shingles vaccine is approved for adults age 50 and older, the CDC still recommends it for routine use in those ages 60 and older. Many insurance companies do not pay for the shot for adults younger than age 60. However, some insurance companies do cover the vaccine for adults in their 50s. Check with your insurance company about coverage. There is no maximum age for getting the vaccine.
A single shot of the vaccine can halve the risk of developing shingles and may also help prevent postherpetic neuralgia and ophthalmic herpes. It is not yet clear how long immunity lasts or if people may eventually require a booster shot.
Varicella-zoster immune globulin (VariZIG) is a substance that mimics the normal immune response against the varicella-zoster virus. It is used to protect high-risk people who are exposed to chickenpox. Such groups include:
For these people, VariZIG should be given within 10 days of exposure to someone with chickenpox (the earlier the better).
Acyclovir or similar antiviral drugs may be used for children over age 12 and adults who have a high risk for developing complications and severe forms of chickenpox. It is not commonly prescribed for young children. To be effective, oral acyclovir must be taken within 24 hours of the onset of the rash. Early intravenous administration of acyclovir is an essential treatment for chickenpox-related pneumonia. Valacyclovir and famciclovir are other antiviral drugs that may help treat chickenpox.
The treatment goals for an acute attack of herpes zoster include:
Over-the-counter (OTC) remedies are often effective in reducing the pain of an attack. Antiviral drugs (acyclovir and others), oral corticosteroids, or both are sometimes given to people with severe symptoms, particularly if they are older and at risk for postherpetic neuralgia (PHN).
Antiviral drugs do not cure shingles, but they can reduce the severity of the attack, hasten healing, and reduce the duration. They may also reduce the risk of postherpetic neuralgia and other complications.
Antiviral drugs approved for treatment of shingles include:
These anti-viral drugs are usually taken for 7 days. To be effective, they should be started within 72 hours of the onset of infection. The earlier they are given the more effective these drugs are. Side effects may include:
Acyclovir may have more side effects than the other two drugs. People who have kidney problems or weakened immune systems may need to take a lower dose of these medications.
Foscarnet (Foscavir) is an injectable antiviral drug that can be used to treat cases of varicella-zoster infection resistant to acyclovir and similar drugs. It is rarely necessary.
Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) is difficult to treat. Once PHN develops, a person may need a multidisciplinary approach that involves a pain specialist, primary care physician, and other health care providers.
The American Academy of Neurology (AAN) treatment guidelines for postherpetic neuralgia recommend:
Creams, patches, or gels containing various substances can provide some pain relief:
Tricyclic antidepressants may help relieve PHN pain. Nortriptyline (Pamelor, generic), amitriptyline (Elavil, generic), and desipramine (Norpramin, generic) are some standard tricyclic drugs used for treating PHN.
It may take several weeks for the drugs to become fully effective. They do not work as well in people who have burning pain or allodynia (pain that occurs with normally non-painful stimulus, such as a light touch or wind).
Unfortunately, tricyclics have side effects that can be severe in the elderly, who are also more likely to have PHN. Desipramine and nortriptyline can have fewer side effects than amitriptyline and may be preferred for older people. Side effects include:
Certain anticonvulsant drugs have effects that may be helpful for PHN. (Anticonvulsant drugs are also known as anti-seizure drugs.) Gabapentin (Neurontin, generic) and pregabalin (Lyrica) are approved for treatment of PHN. Side effects may include:
Anticonvulsant medications may increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior.
A number of relaxation and stress-reduction techniques may be helpful for managing chronic pain. They include:
Psychotherapy approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, may help people learn how to cope with, and manage, their responses to pain.
Certain surgical techniques attempt to block nerve centers associated with postherpetic neuralgia. These methods carry risk and should be considered only when all other methods have failed and the pain is intolerable.
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Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Author: Julia Mongo, MS.