Almost one in three people in the United States will develop shingles at some point in their life, and the rate has only increased over time – especially among young adults. Shingles is a viral infection caused by the same virus as chickenpox. Anyone who has had chickenpox can develop herpes zoster later. The condition is extremely painful and, depending on the rash, can cause serious complications. For parents, the increase in shingles cases means a higher chance that their children will be exposed to the virus if they are not immune.
Is Shingles Contagious?
The answer is a little complicated: shingles itself is not contagious. Somebody can't shingles to someone else. But contact with a shingles rash can pass the virus on to someone who is not immune and causes chickenpox. Once someone has had chickenpox, the virus can return as shingles later in life.
Shingles can affect people of all ages. It's much more common in adults, but it can still happen in children, especially if they have weakened immune systems.
So what can be done?
Vaccinations are the only way to protect yourself from shingles. Vaccination against chickenpox means that not only is a child immune to chickenpox, but the virus isn't dormant in the body, waiting to come out later as shingles. It's like a two-in-one vaccine. Shingles vaccines are also available to reduce the risk for people with chickenpox. Children as young as 12 months can receive their first dose of chickenpox vaccine, while the shingles vaccine is currently only recommended for adults aged 50 and over.
In a recent article for the New York Times, journalist Sarah Szczypinski reported that she had spoken to her doctor about the risks and learned that her shingling rash could give her son chicken pox as well as an increased chance of getting shingles later in life . Her son had only received the first part of the chickenpox vaccine. If her son had been old enough to receive both doses of the chickenpox vaccine, the story would be different. Contact with a rash cannot pass the virus on to someone who has had chickenpox or the full vaccine.
Over 95% of children between the ages of 13 and 18 had received 1 dose of the vaccine as of 2014, but only 81% had received the recommended second dose. This makes them more susceptible to chickenpox, which puts them at risk of the virus reappearing as shingles. The chickenpox vaccine may still help after exposure if the child receives it within 3 to 5 days of the encounter.
The take away
As the number of shingles in young adults increases, so too does the likelihood that unvaccinated or unvaccinated children will get the virus. Vaccination against chickenpox in children and against shingles in parents is the most important way to limit a child's chances of developing the debilitating disease in the future.
Sean Marsala is a health journalist based out of Philadelphia, PA. With a passion for technology, you can usually find him reading, surfing the internet, and exploring virtual worlds.