Shingles, as well as the once-common childhood illness chickenpox, are both caused by the varicella (or herpes) zoster virus. Prior to the invention of the chickenpox vaccine, nearly everyone developed chickenpox, usually during childhood. This put everyone – including children – at risk for shingles, a skin rash caused by viral infection of the nerves just below the skin.
Since 1995, the chickenpox vaccine has been part of the Centers for Disease Control immunization schedule for children from birth to 18 years. Two doses of the vaccine are about 90 percent effective at preventing chickenpox. Children typically receive the first dose when they are between 12 and 15 months old and a second dose between 4 and 6 years old. Children who receive the chickenpox vaccine have a lower risk of developing shingles.
Why do some cases of childhood shingles still occur?
In rare cases, children cannot be vaccinated against the varicella (herpes) zoster virus, including those who had a severe allergic reaction to the first dose, are being treated for cancer or are otherwise immunocompromised. Babies could also be exposed to the virus from an encounter with an adult or unvaccinated child who has developed the illness. In these cases, a chickenpox infection would put that child at risk for developing shingles in the future.
Even if your child has had chickenpox, shingles in kids with strong immune systems is still rare. Cases of shingles that do develop in kids and teens are typically mild as compared to the severe, painful outbreak that tends to affect older adults.
What are the symptoms?
Shingles typically appear as a strip of irritated skin and blisters on one side of a person’s torso – the chest or back – but some people develop shingles on other parts of the body, including on the face and near the eyes. Before the rash appears, someone with shingles may have a headache and flu-like symptoms without fever, and he or she may feel itching, burning, tingling or pain where the rash will occur.
Unlike other rashes, a shingles outbreak tends to be more painful than itchy. Because it affects the nerves, it may feel like needles under the skin. The rash tends to blister, scab over and then disappear within a few weeks. While some adults suffer with post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), persistent pain and sensitivity in the shingles-affected areas that can last months or years, this is very uncommon in children.
What to do if your child gets shingles:
If you think your child may have shingles, call his or her doctor immediately. If it’s a mild case, your child may not need treatment. To ease symptoms and prevent shingles from getting worse, the doctor may prescribe:
- Anti-viral medication
- A cream, spray, or skin patch to numb the skin
- Over-the-counter pain medication
- Antihistamine medication or lotion
- Oatmeal baths
Can my child get chickenpox from someone with shingles?
Chickenpox can be spread from people with shingles to others who have never had chickenpox or received the chickenpox vaccine if the non-immune person touches or breathes in virus from shingles blisters.
If your baby is too young to have received the vaccine, or your child cannot receive the vaccine for some reason, do your best to keep him or her away from anyone with shingles or chickenpox. Since there is still a small chance of developing a mild case of chickenpox even with the vaccine, it’s best to keep all kids away from anyone showing symptoms of these two conditions.