How Shingles Can Cause Chickenpox

Sleeping child with chickenpox

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When people get shingles or hear about someone who has the condition, they often worry about the contagiousness especially with regard to their children. Although your child cannot get shingles from another person, they can get chickenpox. For this reason, it's important to know how shingles spreads and how it causes chickenpox in children. Here's a closer look at the varicella-zoster virus.

How Shingles Spreads

If someone you know has shingles, you cannot catch shingles itself from them. Shingles are caused by the chickenpox virus, which has been dormant in their body ever since they had chickenpox. So, you get shingles from your own chickenpox virus, not from someone else.

That said, shingles are still contagious and can transmit the chickenpox virus to susceptible people. Fortunately, classic localized shingles are not as contagious as chickenpox itself. Unlike chickenpox, shingles are not spread through droplets. You typically have to have direct contact with the shingles blisters for it to be contagious.

That makes it much easier to avoid getting sick, which is important if you have shingles and your child is too young to get vaccinated and protected with a chickenpox vaccine. In general, if someone has shingles and can keep all of the zoster lesions well covered, then children won't have direct contact with them and shouldn't be at much risk.

Of course, the best way to avoid getting chickenpox is to simply get vaccinated with the chickenpox vaccine. Some people worry about the safety of the chickenpox vaccine, though, and wonder if it's responsible for the surge in shingles cases or a shingles epidemic. This speculation is simply another anti-vaccine myth that is used to scare parents away from vaccinating their kids and protecting them against vaccine-preventable diseases.

The trend in rising shingles cases in adults began before we started vaccinating children in the United States. Plus, the trend in rising shingles cases in adults exists in other countries that do not routinely give kids the chickenpox vaccine.

If you have had chickenpox and you're interested in protecting yourself, there are two shingles vaccines are available. In the U.S., Shingrix is the preferred vaccine for healthy people who are 50 and older.

How Shingles Cause Chickenpox

People who have not had chickenpox can catch the varicella-zoster virus if they have close contact with a person who has shingles. According to the CDC, "The virus that causes shingles, varicella zoster virus, can spread from a person with active shingles and cause chickenpox in someone who had never had chickenpox or received chickenpox vaccine."

The most common way to get chickenpox is "by touching or breathing in the virus particles that come from chickenpox blisters," you also can get chickenpox "through tiny droplets from infected people that get into the air after they breathe or talk." Fortunately, the droplet spread doesn't happen with shingles.

Although you should still take steps to avoid contact with the shingles blisters, someone who has had chickenpox or two doses of the chickenpox vaccine should be well protected if they have to be around someone with shingles. Here are some additional things you should know about the contagiousness of shingles.

  • If your child is unvaccinated (and at least 12 months old) or has only had one dose of chickenpox vaccine (and it has been three months since their last dose), getting vaccinated within 3 to 5 days of exposure to someone with shingles might decrease their risk of getting chickenpox.
  • Symptoms of breakthrough chickenpox—getting sick after being vaccinated—are usually much milder than natural chickenpox infections.

If your child is exposed to someone with shingles, whether or not they have been vaccinated, watch them for the development of chickenpox blisters over the next 10 to 21 days—the incubation period for chickenpox.

Dangers of Chickenpox

Although complications from chickenpox are rare, infants, adolescents, and pregnant women are all at risk of complications if they get a serious case of chickenpox. Likewise, people with compromised immune systems, those on chemotherapy, and people who have had transplants are at an elevated risk of complications. Some of complications associated with chickenpox include:

  • Bacterial infections in the skin including Group A streptococcal infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Infection or inflammation of the brain
  • Bleeding issues
  • Bloodstream infections such as sepsis
  • Dehydration

Sometimes complications can become so severe that the person will need to be hospitalized. Chickenpox can even lead to death in healthy people. For instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), many healthy adults who died from chickenpox got the disease their unvaccinated children. To protect your child from chickenpox, be sure you follow the immunization schedule that your child's doctor recommends.

Typically, children get their first dose of chickenpox vaccine they are 12 to 15 months old. The second dose of the chickenpox vaccine can be given any time, as long as it is at least three months after the first dose, but it is typically given when kids are 4 to 6 years old, just before they start kindergarten.

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to shingles and chickenpox, the best way you can protect your child is to ensure you're following the immunization schedule your child's pediatrician recommends. If someone in your family does end up with shingles, the vaccination should protect them from developing any serious complications.

That said, if you're pregnant or if your child is too young to be vaccinated be sure you exercise caution and limit their exposure until the person no longer has shingles. If you have any questions about how to ensure you and your child are safe, talk to your child's pediatrician for advice.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shingles (herpes zoster): transmission.

  3. Massachusetts Department of Public Health Guide to Surveillance, Reporting, and Control. Chickenpox and shingles, section 1, about the disease.

  4. Hales CM, Harpaz R, Joesoef MR, Bialek SR. Examination of links between herpes zoster incidence and childhood varicella vaccinationAnn Intern Med. 2013;159(11):739–745. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-159-11-201312030-00006

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickenpox vaccination: what everyone should know.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disease of the week: chickenpox (varicella).

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickenpox (varicella): complications.

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.