5 Things You Should Know About Chicken Pox and Shingles

Barbara Walters has chicken pox. How likely it is for adults to get infected?

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Barbara Walters’ co-hosts on The View informed viewers that Walters has been hospitalized with the chicken pox. She’s 83, and the infection, which is more common among young children, is rare among older adults. According to her co-host Whoopi Goldberg, Walters has never had chicken pox before.

The news raised questions about how likely adults are to get chicken pox and how chicken pox is related to a condition that’s more common among adults, shingles. So here are some quick facts about the infections.

(MORE: Study: Kids’ Chicken-Pox Vaccine Helps Protect Babies Too)

If you never had chicken pox as a child, can you still get the infection as an adult?
Yes. Although most cases of chicken pox occur before age 10, adults who have never contracted the infection are still at risk.

Can chicken pox be more severe in adults?
Most people get chicken pox when they are young, but the symptoms can be more severe among people who catch the infection in an older age. They include loss of appetite, fever, headache, tiredness and rashes, all of which can be more taxing on the health of elderly adults.

What is shingles, and how is it different from chicken pox?
Shingles, also known as zoster or herpes zoster, is a painful skin rash caused by the same virus responsible for chicken pox: the varicella zoster virus. Even if you had chicken pox in the past, you can still contract shingles. That’s because the chicken-pox virus remains in the body, lying dormant in the roots of nerves, and can reactivate many years later. It’s not clear why the virus reawakens — in some people it never does — but researchers believe that the virus is triggered as the immune system weakens with age or in conditions of stress.

About 1 out of 3 people in the U.S. is affected by shingles at some point in their lives, with the majority of cases occurring in men and women ages 60 and older.

Shingles is less contagious than chicken pox and cannot be passed from person to person. However, the varicella zoster virus can be spread from a person with shingles to someone who has never had chicken pox. The unfortunate recipient might develop chicken pox, but not shingles.

How long is a person contagious with the chicken pox or shingles?
The infection can take anywhere from 10 to 21 days to develop after exposure to someone with chicken pox or shingles. People with chicken pox are contagious a couple days before their rash appears and remain so until all of their blisters have scabbed. A person with shingles, on the other hand, can only spread their infection while their skin rash is still blistering. They’re not contagious before the blisters occur, and are no longer contagious once the rash starts to scab.

What’s the best way to prevent chicken pox and shingles?
To avoid chicken pox, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends two doses of the chicken-pox vaccine — which is 98% effective — for kids, adolescents and adults who have not had chicken pox. Adults who have not had the disease and may be in close contact with young children who are likely to be infected should consider getting vaccinated. Children should receive the first dose when they are between 12 months old and 15 months old, and a second dose when they are 4 years old to 6 years old. The U.S. started chicken-pox immunizations in 1995, so Walters would not have been vaccinated as a child.

There is also a shingles vaccine. Zostavax is recommended for people ages 60 and older since they are most vulnerable to the infection. Currently, the CDC doesn’t have a recommendation for the vaccine in people ages 50 to 59, but the Food and Drug Administration did approve the shot for this age group as well. According to the CDC, shingles-vaccination rates among adults are low, but there was a 16% increase in people ages 60 and older who were immunized in 2011. While the vaccine cannot protect you completely from a bout with shingles, it can make the rashes less painful and help clear them up more quickly.

Read more about chicken pox and shingles from the CDC.