Shingles is caused by the Varicella zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox.
Shingles happens in children and adults who’ve previously had chickenpox. After an episode of chickenpox, the Varicella zoster virus ‘sleeps’ in the nerve cells. Different things can make the virus flare up, but we don’t know what these things are.
Shingles often appears when someone is run down after illness, has an underlying condition affecting the immune system, or is taking medication affecting the immune system.
Shingles rarely affects children under three years of age.
Shingles causes a rash of small red lumps that then form fluid-filled blisters. The blisters usually cover a single patch of skin on one side of the body, which is supplied by a particular nerve.
New lumps form in the first 2-3 days. Over the next few days the blisters crust over.
The rash occurs on the upper body more often than on the face, legs or arms. It’s not usually itchy, but it can be very painful. Your child won’t usually feel ill or have a fever.
If your child has shingles, he can spread the chickenpox virus to other children who’ve haven’t been immunised or infected before. If the rash can be completely covered, your child can go to school, but he shouldn’t swim or play contact sports for seven days after the rash appears. If the rash can’t be covered, your child should stay at home until the rash has dried up.
When to see your doctor about shingles symptoms
You should take your child to the doctor if:
- the rash is on your child’s face or in his eye
- your child complains that the rash is either very itchy or painful
- you’re not sure whether the rash is shingles
- your child suffers from a chronic illness, or is taking immunosuppressive medication
- the rash doesn’t clear up in 10-14 days
- the rash looks infected, or your child has a fever or is otherwise unwell.
There’s no cure for shingles. All you can do is treat the symptoms.
Paracetamol might help relieve mild pain. Avoid applying creams or lotions to the rash. If your child has scratched the rash and broken the skin, apply antiseptic to prevent infection to the area.
Your child usually won’t need specific treatment for shingles. If you get your child to the doctor within 72 hours of the rash starting, your doctor might prescribe an antiviral drug like aciclovir.
Complications from shingles
Shingles can occasionally affect the eye, usually the cornea. Your child’s eye might become red and sore, with tiny ulcers appearing. If you think your child has shingles in her eye, see your doctor immediately.
Prevention of shingles
As part of the Australian National Immunisation Program (NIP), your child will get free immunisation against the Varicella zoster virus at 18 months old (if your child hasn’t had a Varicella infection) or in year 7 of secondary school (if he hasn’t had a Varicella immunisation or infection).