Shingles is an infection that causes a painful skin rash. However, it only develops in people who have previously had chickenpox. The rash and other symptoms usually disappear within a few weeks, but in rare cases, shingles can cause complications.

Shingles in children is rare. It only develops in people who have previously had chickenpox.

This article explains what shingles is, looks at the symptoms, and discusses how doctors diagnose and treat the condition. It will also outline the risk factors and explore how people can help prevent shingles.

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Shingles, which doctors call herpes zoster, is an infection that causes a painful skin rash. It develops when something triggers the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (VZV) in the body.

VZV is the virus that causes chickenpox. Once a person has recovered from chickenpox, VZV does not go away. It stays in the body and, in some people, can later reactivate to cause shingles.

In the United States, there are about four cases of herpes zoster for every 1,000 people each year.

Most of these cases occur in adults, as shingles in children is rare, affecting just 0.45 in every 1,000 individuals under the age of 14 years.

Shingles tends to start with a tingling sensation, itching, or stabbing pain on the skin.

Several days later, the person will develop a rash. This will usually start as a band or patch of raised dots. The rash can appear anywhere, but the most commonly affected areas are the face or the side of the torso.

These dots then turn into small blisters that fill with fluid. Over several days, these will dry out and crust over.

The rash can be itchy and painful, but symptoms can vary for everyone. For some people, the itch and pain will be mild, while symptoms can be more intense for others.

According to the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, the rash and pain will usually last around 3–5 weeks.

During this time, children with shingles may also experience:

  • fever
  • chills
  • headache
  • feeling sick

Learn more about shingles pain.

Doctors tend to diagnose shingles by looking at the rash. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say it can be difficult to diagnose the condition in children.

Healthcare professionals may recommend a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. To do the test, they may either rub a swab on the rash or take a saliva sample.

The doctor then sends the sample to a laboratory for analysis.

A person with shingles cannot give another person the condition. However, people with shingles can pass on the VZV virus. And if they pass VZV to someone who has not had chickenpox, that person can develop chickenpox.

The virus spreads through the fluid that leaks from the blisters. If the child or their parent or caregiver can cover the rash, they can go to school or child care. If they cannot cover the rash, they should not go to school or child care until the blisters dry out and scab over.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) recommends using loose clothing or a nonsticky dressing to cover the rash.

Learn more about how people contract shingles.

There is no cure for shingles, but not every child who develops shingles will need treatment.

Antiviral drugs can reduce the time it takes for the rash to disappear, although doctors do not usually prescribe them for healthy children.

Doctors may recommend acyclovir tablets or an acyclovir drip for children who are immunocompromised.

Over-the-counter pain medications can help ease the pain. Parents and caregivers should consult a doctor and follow the dosing instructions on the product label.

Applying a cool washcloth or calamine lotion to the rash can help ease the itching.

A person cannot get shingles from someone who has shingles, but they can get chickenpox.

Shingles usually only affects people who have had chickenpox in the past. In rare cases, shingles develops in children who have had the chickenpox vaccine. Doctors do not know what reactivates VZV, but some things make it more likely.

Risk factors for developing shingles include:

  • not having the chickenpox vaccine, also known as the varicella-zoster vaccine
  • having chickenpox in the first year of life
  • having a biological parent who developed chickenpox when pregnant
  • having a compromised or weakened immune system

Learn more about chickenpox in babies.

In most cases, children will recover from shingles completely. However, the condition can sometimes cause complications, which can include a bacterial infection in the rash blisters. It may also lead to postherpetic neuralgia, nerve pain that can last for months after the rash disappears.

Rarer complications include:

Shingles most often affects people who have had chickenpox. The best way to prevent shingles is to have the chickenpox vaccine.

To avoid spreading the virus to others, people with shingles can:

  • avoid direct contact with others
  • cover the rash
  • try not to touch or scratch the rash
  • clean their hands frequently

Some individuals are more at risk of developing severe shingles complications than others. It means that children with shingles should take extra care not to spread the virus when they are around them.

Those most at risk include:

  • babies less than 1 month old
  • pregnant people who have not had a chickenpox vaccine
  • people with immune conditions such as HIV and AIDS
  • individuals with compromised immune systems, such as those undergoing chemotherapy or recovering from an organ transplant

Children with shingles symptoms should speak with a doctor as soon as possible. Some rashes in children look similar to shingles but may have a more severe cause that needs treatment.

Some children may need antiviral medications for shingles. The medication works best when people take it within 3 days of the rash appearing.

In most children, the rash and pain from shingles will go away in around 3–5 weeks.

In some cases, children develop long-term complications of shingles, such as ongoing pain. However, these complications are rare.

Shingles causes a painful rash on the skin. It usually only develops in people who have previously had chickenpox, but it can affect individuals who have had the chickenpox vaccine. The condition is rare in children.

Shingles occurs when the chickenpox virus, VZV, reactivates. However, doctors do not know why this happens in some people.

In most cases, the rash and any associated pain will go away within a few weeks. Some children may develop complications, but these are rare.

There is no cure for shingles, but antiviral drugs can help reduce symptoms. These work best when a person takes them within a few days of the rash appearing. And while not everyone needs treatment for shingles, health experts recommend consulting a doctor to rule out other conditions.

Vaccination against chickenpox is the best way to prevent shingles in children.