Is Chickenpox Herpes?

How the Viruses (and Public Attitudes) Differ

Electron micrograph of varicella-zoster virus (VZV).

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Herpes is a highly stigmatized word and one that most people don't want to be associated with. That is why some people balk when they hear that chickenpox is a form of herpes. Not only that, the same herpes virus that causes chickenpox in children can also cause disease in adults.

About Herpes Viruses

Herpesviridae is the scientific term for the group of viruses colloquially known as herpes viruses. The type that causes chickenpox is known as varicella-zoster virus (VZV).

After a period of dormancy, VZV can reactivate and trigger a common yet painful disease called shingles. While it is typically referred to as herpes zoster when it causes shingles, the virus is ultimately VZV by another name.

At least four other herpes viruses commonly affect humans:

  • Herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1) is the virus that primarily causes cold sores. HSV-1 is now responsible for a growing number of genital herpes infections since it can be transmitted during oral sex.
  • Herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-1) is the virus that used to be responsible for most cases of genital herpes. HSV-2 still primarily infects the genital region. This is the virus most people are thinking of them when they say someone has herpes.
  • Epstein Barr virus (EBV) is the virus causes mononucleosis. It has also been tentatively linked to some cases of chronic fatigue syndrome. However, there needs to be substantially more research before such an association can be confirmed
  • Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a virus that rarely causes disease in healthy individuals. However, a CMV infection can be quite serious in people who are immune compromised, such as those with HIV. CMV infection can also be dangerous during pregnancy if transmitted to the baby. CMV in infants can cause serious, long-term health problems.

    Making the Differentiation

    In general, when someone says that they have herpes, they mean that they have genital herpes. However, it is technically correct to refer to either genital herpes or oral herpes as herpes.

    By contrast, infections with the other types of herpes virus are not referred to having herpes per se. In this sense, chickenpox is not herpes even though it is associated with the same family of herpes virus.

    Beyond the fact the VSV and HSV are different viruses, the term "herpes" suggests sexual transmission. It is why we use "cold sore" to describe HSV-1 even though it can be just as readily transmitted to the genitals through oral sex.

    Chickenpox is not sexually transmitted. As such, it and cold sores are seen by many to be "innocent," while genital herpes carries the stigma of blame. It is an attitude that reflects the general discomfort we, as Americans, have with sex and sexuality.

    A Word From Verywell

    The truly sad part is that the stigma associated with herpes is the main reason why many don't get treated and end up passing the virus to others. The same thing is seen with HIV and pretty much every other sexually transmitted infection. And the problem is growing.

    Genital herpes today affects one in eight American between the ages of 14 and 49, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Moreover, an estimated 776,000 new infections occur each and every year.

    The question as to whether chickenpox and herpes are the same thing is not as important as asking ourselves why one makes feel so dirty and the other doesn't?

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