Can You Get Shingles If You Never Had Chickenpox?

Little girl scratching her chickenpox rash on the back

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Both chickenpox and shingles are caused by the same virus—the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). Most people who get chickenpox get it during childhood. Shingles is a painful disease that can develop later in life. However, you can only get it if you’ve already had chickenpox. 

How You Get Shingles

To develop shingles, a person needs to have been infected with the varicella-zoster virus. That means you need to have had chickenpox to get shingles later in life.

Just because a person has had chickenpox doesn’t mean they’ll definitely have shingles in adulthood. Varicella-zoster lays dormant in the nerve cells and, in most people, never causes a problem again. In some people, however, the virus reactivates and produces shingles.

If a person has never had chickenpox, they cannot get shingles. But they can get adult chickenpox. Only after getting chickenpox would they be at risk of getting shingles later in their life.

Most people who get chickenpox as a child will be immune to the disease for the rest of their lives. In rare cases, people can get chickenpox more than once.

What Are the Symptoms of Shingles?

Symptoms of shingles include:

  • Burning, itching, or irritation of the skin
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Fluid-filled blisters
  • Sensitive skin

Shingles often affects only one side of the body. Symptoms vary from mild to severe, depending on the person. Some people do not develop noticeable symptoms like a rash. If left untreated, shingles can cause nerve damage and produce lasting pain.

Adult Chickenpox Symptoms

You may have had chickenpox in your youth. If you remember the experience, you probably recall having an extremely itchy, burning rash that spread all over your body. It can be an excruciating experience.

Chickenpox symptoms include:

  • An initial period of fatigue before the onset of the rash
  • Itchy rash composed of red bumps that can affect the face, head, armpits, arms, legs, trunk, and mouth
  • General malaise
  • Loss of appetite

Risks

The symptoms of adult chickenpox are similar to the childhood disease, but they’re likely to be much more severe—and sometimes, life threatening. Adults who are immunocompromised are even more likely to experience severe symptoms. 

Chickenpox complications are more common in adults. Some potential complications include:

  • Bacterial infections, such as skin infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Inflammation of the spinal cord
  • Swelling of the brain 

In some cases, adult chickenpox can be fatal.  

How to Avoid Adult Chickenpox

Getting vaccinated against chickenpox is the best way to avoid chickenpox infection so you won’t have shingles later in life. While a vaccine doesn’t provide complete immunity to chickenpox, it can limit the severity of symptoms should you get infected.

Vaccinating children early lowers the risk of a chickenpox infection significantly. The two-dose vaccine is typically administered at about 15 months of age and then again at around 4 to 6 years of age.

If you’re older than 13 and have never had chickenpox or received the chickenpox vaccine, you can still get vaccinated. The process involves two doses, at least 28 days apart.

It can be tough to avoid getting a chickenpox infection from someone with chickenpox, because people with chickenpox are contagious from one to two days before the rash appears until the lesions scab over. The virus is spread through direct contact with fluid from the blisters, breathing in aerosols of the blister fluid, and possibly also by respiratory secretions.

If you’ve never had chickenpox, you should also avoid contact with anyone who has shingles. In shingles, the virus can be transmitted through direct contact with fluid from the blisters. It only can do this while the rash is present, and the person remains contagious until the blistering rash crusts over.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), studies have shown that 90% of people who are susceptible to chickenpox and have close contact with a person with the disease will develop chickenpox. Only 20% of susceptible close contacts of people with shingles developed chickenpox.

Avoid close contact with people whose shingles rash has not crusted over. If you are caring for someone with shingles, make sure the rash is covered. Unfortunately, some people with shingles have what’s called internal shingles. They may never get an obvious rash. 

Ultimately, the best way to prevent getting chickenpox is to get vaccinated.  Some people, such as those taking immunosuppressive drugs, should not get the chickenpox vaccine. This is why it’s crucial for the rest of the population to get vaccinated. Herd immunity helps protect vulnerable people for whom vaccination is not a possibility.

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Article Sources
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