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Column originally published Jul 16, 1997
Column last revised/updated on Jun 21, 2019

Children Can Catch The Virus From Shingles, Although This Is Uncommon

Question: I hope you don’t mind answering this question. I am a grandfather. Recently I had a rather painful rash on my back. My family doctor said that it was shingles. When my daughter heard it, she would not let her children visit me, saying that I may give them the germs. Is this possible?


Your daughter was right. You can pass these germs onto your grandchildren, although the chance is very small. Let me explain to you in greater detail the reason why.

Shingles is caused by a virus called Varicella-Zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox, a very common infection in young children. Most of these infections are very mild, with a little fever followed by a rash on the body. Each individual spot has a blister in the centre surrounded by a little red margin. Some children have very mild infection, with only a few spots which may not be noticed by their parents. Once in a while the infection can be quite severe, with numerous spots from head to toe.

Once a person has chickenpox, the virus stays inside the body within certain nerve cells. It can remain “silent” there forever without causing trouble. However, it sometimes shows up again later on in life as shingles. The rash of shingles looks very much like chickenpox, with many blisters close together surrounded by a red margin. The rash usually occurs on one side of the body and involves a small area of the skin served by the nerves where the virus was “hiding.” Shingles most often occurs in the chest, although it can affect any other part of the body, including the face and the scalp.

Children usually get infected with this virus after exposure to other children with chickenpox. The virus is present in the blisters and can be spread by direct contact with the spots or through the hands. Some infected children can also spread the virus through respiratory secretions. After infection, the virus multiplies in the body for ten to 21 days before coming down with chickenpox.

Rarely, however, a child can be infected by a person who has shingles. The Varicella-Zoster virus is also present inside the shingles blisters. In order to get infected, the child has to touch the blisters directly, or indirectly through contaminated hands. If the shingles is covered, and the person practices good handwashing, the chance of spreading the virus to a child is almost zero. Since chickenpox is very common in the community, especially in late winter and early spring, the chance of your grandchildren picking up the virus from their friends is much greater than getting it from you. Therefore, you can reassure your daughter and her family.

Another factor to remember is that most children who develop chickenpox when they are young have rather mild infection, and will miss a few days of school. However, if they miss the infection as a child and get infected later on in life, the infection is usually much more serious and complications are very common. Because of this, some parents intentionally expose their children to others with chickenpox so that they can “get over” with this disease sooner instead of later. In general, this practice is safe unless the child is under one year of age, or if the child’s immune system is not working well. This includes children taking steroid medicine by mouth.

One last word of caution for parents. DO NOT give children aspirin when they have chickenpox. They can develop a severe and sometimes fatal condition called Reye’s syndrome. Children with this condition usually have repeated vomiting and lethargy. If a child with chickenpox needs fever or pain medicine, please use acetaminophen (Tylenol and Tempra) instead.

[Note to Readers: Since the publication of this column, Varicella vaccine has become available for children to prevent chickenpox; this is a very effective vaccine.  There are shingles vaccines for adults also to prevent shingles.  Please refer to more recent columns on the website.]