Why Is Shingles Worse Than Chickenpox?

  • Medical Reviewer: Mahammad Juber S, MD
Medically Reviewed on 6/28/2022

What is chickenpox?

Shingles, which is sometimes called herpes zoster, is an illness caused by the same virus that leads to chickenpox. Shingles is more serious than the common childhood illness.
Shingles, which is sometimes called herpes zoster, is an illness caused by the same virus that leads to chickenpox. Shingles is more serious than the common childhood illness.

Many people think of shingles as chickenpox 2.0, a virus that’s annoying but not serious. Shingles is indeed caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, but it is more serious than the common childhood illness. Shingles lasts much longer, is much more painful, and comes with a higher risk of complications. 

There is a shingles vaccine administered to prevent the disease, and many experts recommend it for adults over 50 and people with certain health conditions. This vaccine eliminates your risk of developing a potentially painful and debilitating illness. 

Chickenpox is a contagious illness caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It usually manifests as an itchy rash that covers the entire body. It can be accompanied by symptoms such as a headache, fatigue, low appetite, and fever. It generally goes away within 4 to 7 days. 

This illness used to be very common, particularly in children. In the 1990s, drug makers developed a vaccine to prevent the virus. It’s part of the recommended regimen of childhood vaccines now. Experts estimate that the vaccine prevents 3.5 million cases per year.

What is shingles?

Shingles, which is sometimes called herpes zoster, is an illness caused by the same virus that leads to chickenpox. If you had chickenpox in the past, the virus never leaves your system. Instead, it remains dormant in some of your cells. If the virus becomes active again, the resulting illness is referred to as shingles. 

Not everyone who had chickenpox in the past will develop shingles. Experts estimate that 1 in 3 people who had chickenpox in the past will get shingles as an adult. 

Experts don’t fully understand how the virus is reactivated and causes new symptoms. It’s more likely to happen to older adults, but teens and young adults also occasionally develop shingles. Having an underlying immune system condition such as HIV, a history of cancer, or a prescription to take certain medications can increase your risk of shingles. 

Shingles usually appears as a painful skin rash. It is often limited to one side of your body or face, though some people observe a more widespread rash. Symptoms include:

The severity of shingles varies. Some people experience only mild discomfort. Others experience significant pain. Symptoms can last from 3 to 4 weeks. 

What's the difference between chickenpox and shingles?

Complications from chickenpox are rare. Most people recover within a week. The typical symptoms are uncomfortable, but most people don’t find them unbearable. 

While shingles can be mild, many people find the symptoms to be very painful. The rash can cause acute pain. The rash will become blistered, and the blisters will burst and crust over. The healing process from a case of shingles can take several weeks. 

Sometimes, shingles appears on the face, which can lead to complications. If shingles affects the eyes or ears, you are at risk of suffering damage to your vision or hearing. In some cases, people experience paralysis of their face muscles. If you contract shingles on your face, you should see a doctor as soon as possible. 

In rare cases, shingles can lead to severe complications such as pneumonia, encephalitis, or meningitis. If this happens, you will need to be hospitalized. 

Some people have lingering effects even after shingles has cleared up. You may experience lasting pain in the area where the rash appeared. This is called postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN. Experts estimate that 1 in 10 people who get shingles will also develop PHN. It is the most common complication of the virus.

PHN can last for months or years, and it is very difficult to treat. People who experience this complication find that the pain interferes with daily life. It can lead to mental health symptoms such as depression as well. 

Can you treat shingles? 

There are several anti-viral medications that can help with shingles. Acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir are all approved for shingles. They don’t cure the virus, but they shorten the length of time you will have symptoms. They can also reduce the severity of your symptoms. They are most effective if you take them soon after the onset of symptoms.

You can try home care to make the symptoms of shingles less intrusive. Some useful strategies include: 

  • Avoid scratching or picking at the blisters.
  • Apply cool compresses to ease the pain from blisters and help them dry up faster.
  • Engage in relaxing activities and hobbies such as reading, watching TV, or listening to music.
  • Try administering oatmeal baths or calamine lotion to soothe irritated skin.
  • Rest and eat well-balanced meals.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing that won’t irritate your skin.

Ask your doctor about how to best manage pain from shingles.


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Can you prevent shingles?

There is a safe and effective vaccine to prevent shingles. It’s approved for adults over 50 and people 19 and over with certain underlying health conditions. The shot requires two doses, administered 2 to 6 months apart. 

You can even receive the vaccine if you have had shingles in the past because it is possible to have shingles more than once. You can also get the newer vaccine called Shingrix, even if you previously got the Zostavax vaccine.

Shingles isn’t easily transmitted between people, so you can prevent passing it along to other people in your life without much difficulty. You cannot transmit shingles by coughing or sneezing, and skin contact won’t transmit the virus. The only way to catch the virus is to come in contact with the fluid from a shingles blister. This can lead to chickenpox if you have not had chickenpox or the vaccine in the past.

If you have shingles, you should keep your rash covered as much as possible. That will reduce the risk of someone coming in contact with your blisters. Avoid sharing towels or swimming in public pools.

If you get shingles, ask your doctor what treatment you need. They can help you decide what will work for you. 

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Medically Reviewed on 6/28/2022

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "About Chickenpox." "About Shingles (Herpes Zoster)." "Shingles Vaccination."

NHS Inform: "Shingles."

National Institute on Aging: "Shingles."