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Column originally published Nov 12, 2002
Column last revised/updated on Sep 11, 2018

Shingles Can Happen In Adults, But Can Also Happen In Young Children

Question: Our daughter developed shingles when she was eight-months old. We were very surprised at that time. The rash was on one side of her chest and back. Our doctor told us that it was because my wife had chickenpox when she was pregnant. Two months ago I developed shingles that involved the right side of my back. I was under a lot of stress at work at that time. My doctor advised me to take some time off. With medicine and relaxation, I am getting much better, although there is still some pain. My shingles came just three months after our daughter had hers. Is it possible that I contracted the shingles from our daughter?


The short answer to your question is no. You did not contract shingles from your daughter. Let me explain this to you in greater detail here.

Both chickenpox and shingles are caused by the same virus. It is called Varicella zoster. It can infect humans only, one cannot catch the virus from other animals.

Chickenpox is one of the most common childhood illness. In North America, outbreaks of chickenpox happen in schools and homes every spring, although sporadic cases can occur any time of the year. It is a very contagious virus. If a child comes down with chickenpox, almost all other uninfected children in the family will get it sooner or later. By mid-teens, almost 95% of all children have already had chickenpox. The infection induces a life-long immunity so that a second episode of chickenpox is highly unlikely.

A small percentage of children will miss infection during their childhood. When they finally get infected as an older teenager or an adult, the chickenpox infection is often more serious. We still don’t completely understand the reason behind this. Complications like pneumonia are also more common in adults as a result of chickenpox infection.

Pregnant women are at special risk if they develop chickenpox during pregnancy. The virus will spread through the placenta to the foetus. Most of the time, infection of the foetus is asymptomatic, and the pregnancy will continue without complication. Occasionally infants born to these women are smaller than expected, and there is a small chance of scars present on their skin or deformity of an extremity.

Once Varicella zoster virus infects a person, the virus does not disappear from the body. Instead, it hides within the part of the nervous system that is very close to the spinal cord, and can remain dormant for the rest of the person’s life.

For reasons that is still unknown, the dormant virus can start to multiply and spread along the nerve to the skin, and form a cluster of chickenpox-like vesicles. This condition is called shingles. The size and shape of shingles depend on the nerve that is affected. It is almost always restricted to one side of the body. If shingles occur on the trunk, which is the most common situation, it would appear as a band following the direction of the rib underneath. Occasionally shingles can involve the face and the scalp.

Shingles in young children is quite uncommon. Most of the time, the mother has a history of chickenpox during pregnancy. At this young age, shingles is generally a mild condition and does not require any treatment. Complete recovery often takes two to four weeks, unless the vesicles become secondarily infected by bacteria.

If a child has a weakened immune system for whatever reason, the virus can spread from a localized area of vesicles to all parts of the body, including internal organs. Children who develop this type of uncontrolled infection are seriously ill. Fortunately effective anti-viral medications are available to combat the virus when this happens.

The chance of developing shingles increases with age, although we don’t completely understand why a virus that has laid dormant for years can suddenly reactivate and start multiplying. Shingles in adults is a much more serious problem because of associated pain that comes with the rash. Although the vesicles can dry up and disappear in several weeks, the pain often continues for a long time afterwards, and can be quite severe. Some adults may require assistance from physicians that are specialized in pain treatment.

Since shingles originate from a dormant virus inside your body, it is not possible for you to contract shingles from your daughter, regardless of how close the contact has been.

I would like to mention briefly about the new Varicella zoster vaccine. It was licensed in Canada several years ago. Presently Prince Edward Island is providing this vaccine free of charge through the Public Health nurses to all children at around 12 months of age. In most other provinces, parents have to pay for the cost of this vaccine. It is very effective in preventing chickenpox. Some children can develop a very mild rash within a few weeks after vaccination.

[Note to Readers: The chickenpox vaccine is now universally provided by all provinces to children. There are also shingles vaccines for adults to boost their immunity to the virus, and prevent them from developing shingles in their senior years.]