Chickenpox and shingles are both caused by the varicella-zoster virus.
Chickenpox is a mild, but highly infectious condition that commonly affects children. Shingles is an infection of a nerve and the area of skin that is supplied by it. You cannot get shingles unless you have previously had chickenpox.
Most adults are immune to chickenpox because they have had the condition as a child. If you had chickenpox as a child, you will normally have developed chickenpox antibodies which will prevent you from getting the condition again.
However, the varicella-zoster virus remains dormant (inactive) in your body, and may be reactivated at a later date in the form of shingles.
The chickenpox virus can be reactivated if your
immune system is low. Shingles is therefore a condition that is more common in older people, people who are run down, or those who are immunocompromised (have a weakened
immune system) due to an illness, such as AIDS, or following treatment for cancer.
An episode of shingles usually lasts for between 2-4 weeks. The condition causes a tingling sensation,
pain, and a rash on the affected area. It can also cause
fever, and can make you feel generally sick.
Unlike chickenpox, which can be transmitted through the air (from coughs and sneezes) the virus that causes shingles is spread through direct contact with open blisters. A person who has shingles is
contagious until the last blister has scabbed over, and this is why the rash should be kept covered.
If you have not had chickenpox before, and come into contact with someone with shingles, it is possible for you to catch chickenpox from them (although the risk is very small).
You would have to actually touch the blisters for you to catch chickenpox. However, you cannot catch shingles from them because the virus has to be reactivated, rather than passed on.
If you are pregnant, and you know that you have not had chickenpox, you should avoid contact with anyone who has either chickenpox or shingles. You should see your doctor who may recommend that you have an injection containing chickenpox antibodies that will protect you against the condition.
If you are unsure about whether you have had chickenpox in the past, you should also see your doctor. They will be able to carry out a test for chickenpox antibodies and give you a booster injection if you need it.
If you know that you have not had chickenpox, and you come into contact with someone who has the condition, see your doctor immediately (regardless of whether or not you have any symptoms). This is because catching chickenpox during pregnancy can cause complications for both you and your child.
If you develop shingles while you are pregnant, your baby will not be affected. This is because your body already contains the necessary antibodies to protect your baby from the virus.