Some research suggests there may be a weak genetic link in the development of shingles. However, a pregnant person cannot transmit shingles to their infant.

Shingles occurs in people who have had chickenpox due to infection with the varicella-zoster virus (VZV).

After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus does not leave their body. Instead, it remains in their nervous system. The virus may reactivate later in the person’s life, causing shingles.

This article explores the research around VZV and genetics and whether an infant may acquire the virus while a person is pregnant. It also discusses some potential risk factors associated with shingles.

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Limited research suggests that children may inherit a genetic risk of shingles depending on whether they get chickenpox.

According to a 2018 review of previous studies, much research on the link between genes and shingles are weak, inconclusive, and possibly skewed by bias.

For example, a large portion of information about the 1,112 study participants’ family history relied on personal memory, which is not a reliable way to determine genetic risk.

The review results found only a weak connection between shingles risk and genetics. Review authors concluded that those with a family member who had shingles might have a higher risk of developing it themselves, as long as they had chickenpox before.

A 2017 study found a similar weak link. This was a smaller study based in China. Researchers found that having a family history of the condition may be associated with a higher risk of painful symptoms and postherpetic neuralgia. This is a long-term complication in which shingles pain continues beyond the appearance of lesions on the skin.

Learn more about what shingles rash looks like.

It is still unclear how this link would cause shingles, although some studies have made suggestions.

A 2015 association analysis examined the genes of 22,981 people, 2,280 of whom had shingles. Researchers suggested there may be an association between shingles development and variations in the HLA-B gene. This gene contains instructions for making a certain type of protein that plays an important role in a person’s immune system.

According to 2011 research, there is no record of a pregnant person transmitting VZV to a fetus, either during the gestation period (in which a fetus grows in the uterus) or closer to delivery through transplacental transmission.

Shingles is only transmitted from one person to another through direct contact with the fluid in skin lesions and blisters.

Even if a person does contract VZV from blister fluid, they risk contracting chickenpox. Shingles only develops once the virus reactivates after being inactive in a person’s body for some time following chickenpox.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), shingles cannot be transmitted to an infant through breast milk.

However, if a person has shingles lesions on or near the nipple, the CDC advises pumping breast milk from the affected breast and feeding the infant with the unaffected breast to avoid direct contact with the infant’s mouth.

Read more about how shingles is transmitted.

More research into the link between genetics and shingles is needed. However, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, proven risk factors that make shingles more likely include:

  • Age: People ages 50 years and older get shingles more often than younger people. The risk increases with age. People ages 40 and younger rarely get shingles.
  • HIV: This virus weakens the immune system. As such, it can make VZV more likely to flare up.
  • Certain types of cancer: Cancers of the immune system, such as leukemia and lymphoma, can increase the risk of shingles.
  • Medications that weaken the immune system: People who take medication to avoid rejection of a new organ after transplant surgery, suppress psoriasis, or reduce psoriatic arthritis symptoms may have a greater risk of shingles.
  • Other treatments that can weaken the immune system: People receiving chemotherapy to treat cancer might have reduced immune function and a higher risk of shingles.

There are currently two vaccines available in the United States that reduce a person’s risk of developing shingles. People can consider talking with a doctor about whether either vaccine may be suitable for them.

Some limited studies suggest that shingles may have a weak link to a person’s genetics. However, further research is necessary.

Shingles cannot be transmitted from a pregnant person to their baby during pregnancy. However, if a newborn baby is exposed to fluid from a shingles blister, they may risk contracting chickenpox. Chickenpox is the primary infection that can later reactivate to cause shingles.

Older people and people with weakened immune systems have a higher risk of shingles. A person can speak with a doctor to know more about how shingles is transmitted, their individual risk of developing it, and whether shingles vaccination may be appropriate.