Is Chickenpox Herpes?

How the Viruses (and Public Attitudes) Differ

Herpes is a highly stigmatized word and one that most people don't want to be associated with. That's 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 shingles in adults when it is reactivated.

Does this mean all of these conditions can be referred to as "herpes?"

Child with chickenpox on the back of her mother
MilosBataveljic / Getty Images 

About Herpes Viruses

Herpesviridae is the scientific term for the group of viruses colloquially known as herpes viruses. There are several herpes viruses that express themselves differently, but they each cause a blister-like rash that can spread. The name Herpeviridae is derived from the Greek word herpein, meaning "to creep."

There are at least six different herpes viruses commonly affecting humans:

Making the Differentiation

Often, 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 viruses are not referred to as herpes. Although chickenpox, shingles, mononucleosis, and CMV retinitis are all caused by herpes viruses, they are not considered to be herpes in the usual sense of the word.

The term "herpes" also suggests sexual transmission. It is why people refer to herpes on the lip as a "cold sore" and herpes on the vagina, penis, or anus as "genital herpes" even if the same virus is involved.

Sexual transmission is also a differentiating factor between chickenpox and herpes as VZV is not sexually transmitted. Although sexual transmission is possible EBV and CMV, they can be passed through other bodily fluids, such as saliva, tears, urine, blood, and breast milk.

Due to the mode of transmission, something like a cold sore might be considered "innocent," while genital herpes often carries the stigma of blame. It is an attitude that reflects the general discomfort we, as Americans, have with sex and sexuality.

Chickenpox
  • Caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV)

  • Primarily affects children under the age of 10

  • The virus becomes latent after the initial infection but can reactive in later years as shingles

  • Is not sexually transmitted

Genital Herpes
  • Caused mainly by HSV-2 but can also be spread from mouth to genitals with HSV-1

  • Affects sexually active teens and adults

  • Can reactivate after the initial infection with occasional acute outbreaks

  • Is sexually transmitted

A Word From Verywell

The stigma associated with herpes is one of the main reasons 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. 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 us feel ashamed and the other doesn't?

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes - CDC fact sheet (detailed). Updated January 31, 2017.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome: Possible causes. Updated July 12, 2018.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About cytomegalovirus (CMV). Updated June 17, 2019.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickenpox (varicella) transmission. Updated December 31, 2018.

  5. McQuillan G, Kruszon-Moran D, Flagg EW, Paulose-Ram R. Prevalence of herpes simplex virus type 1 and type 2 in persons aged 14–49: United States, 2015–2016. In; NCHS Data Brief No. 304. February 2018.

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