A Virus Common in Children Poses a Greater Threat to Adults

Sept 4, 2018

A common childhood illness can strike the same person twice, once as a child and later as an adult — and without treatment, the adult version of the virus can be even more painful. The varicella-zoster virus does double duty, causing itchy, fluid-filled blisters on the head and body of young patients, and then can reactivate as a more painful, blistery rash called shingles after the child grows up. “One nasty virus can wreak havoc in the lives of young and older patients,” said Li-Yu Mitchell, MD, a Tyler family physician and a member of the Texas Medical Association’s Council on Health Promotion and Be Wise — ImmunizeSM Advisory Committee.

Health experts say vaccination is the only way to prevent chickenpox, and later, the shingles virus. Children should get two doses of the chickenpox vaccine; once at 12-15 months old and later at 4-6 years old. Since chickenpox is highly contagious, Texas schoolchildren are required to get the vaccine before attending school. The shot gives relief, even if it doesn’t always provide a 100-percent shield. “Even if a vaccinated person gets chickenpox, the symptoms are usually much milder. Fortunately, a two-dose vaccine is 90-percent effective at preventing chickenpox,” Dr. Mitchell said.

Since its introduction in the United States in 1995, the chickenpox vaccine has led to 92 percent fewer cases of the illness, 84 percent fewer hospitalizations, and a 90-percent drop in deaths, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. And those who get the chickenpox vaccine have little chance of getting shingles. 

However, most adults did not get chickenpox vaccine as children, and CDC says more than 90 percent of Americans 40 years or older had chickenpox as kids, whether they remember it or not. As a result, about one in three people in the United States — more than a million people a year by some estimates — will develop shingles during their lifetime. The risk of this painful illness grows as people get older, according to CDC. The varicella-zoster virus creates a one-two punch, Dr. Mitchell said. “To get shingles, you must have had chickenpox first,” she said. 

Protection is available, however, so adults do not have to suffer. “There is a two-dose vaccine that can prevent shingles in adults,” said Dr. Mitchell. 

For most adult patients, CDC now recommends a new vaccine introduced this year called Shingrix because it is 97-percent effective for those aged 50-69 years, and 91-percent effective for those 70 years of age and older. Between 2006 and 2018, a vaccine called Zostavax was the only shingles shot available. It reduced the risk of shingles by 51 percent and gave protection for about five years. CDC recommends Shingrix for everyone aged 50 and older — even if they already received the Zostavax vaccine. Dr. Mitchell recommends people ask their physician for advice. “Any adult can get the vaccine, and healthy adults over age 50 should get it.”

More information on varicella-zoster virus, chickenpox, and shingles, including a short video and printable infographic, can be found on the TMA website.

This release is part of a monthly TMA series highlighting contagious diseases that childhood and adult vaccinations can prevent. TMA designed the series to inform patients of the facts about these diseases, and to help them understand the benefits of vaccinations to prevent illness. Visit the TMA website to see reports on measles, human papillomavirus (HPV), pneumococcal disease, and meningococcal disease, as well as the school-entry vaccination schedule.

TMA is the largest state medical society in the nation, representing more than 51,000 physician and medical student members. It is located in Austin and has 110 component county medical societies around the state. TMA’s key objective since 1853 is to improve the health of all Texans. Be Wise — Immunize is a joint initiative led by TMA physicians and medical students, and the TMA Alliance. It is funded in 2018 by the TMA Foundation thanks to H-E-B, TMF Health Quality Institute, Pfizer Inc., and gifts from physicians and their families.

Be Wise — Immunize is a service mark of the Texas Medical Association.


TMA Contacts:  Brent Annear (512) 370-1381; cell: (512) 656-7320; email: brent.annear[at]texmed[dot]org

Marcus Cooper (512) 370-1382; cell: (512) 650-5336; email: marcus.cooper[at]texmed[dot]org

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Check out MeAndMyDoctor.com for interesting and timely news on health care issues and policy.

Last Updated On

February 13, 2020

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