Shingles is caused by the Varicella zoster virus.
Shingles happens in children who’ve previously had chickenpox. When children have had chickenpox, the Varicella zoster virus ‘sleeps’ in their nerve cells. The virus can ‘wake up’ and cause shingles in children who:
- are run down after illness
- have an underlying condition affecting their immune systems
- are taking medicine affecting their immune systems.
You can’t ‘catch’ shingles. But if your child hasn’t been immunised against chickenpox or hasn’t had chickenpox before, they can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles.
Shingles rarely affects children under 3 years of age.
Shingles appears as a rash of small lumps, which might look purple, brown or grey on darker skin or red on lighter skin. The lumps form fluid-filled blisters. The blisters cluster together on a single patch of skin. New lumps form over the first few days, then the blisters crust over.
The rash occurs on the upper body more often than on the face, legs or arms. The rash isn’t usually itchy, but it can be very painful.
Sometimes shingles can affect the outside lining of the eye. The white of your child’s eye might become red. Your child’s eye might also be sore, and your child might have tiny ulcers around their eye.
Your child won’t usually feel ill or have a fever.
Medical help: when to get it for children with shingles
You should take your child to your GP if your child’s rash:
- is on their face or around their eyes
- looks infected
- doesn’t clear up in 10-14 days.
Also see the GP if your child:
- gets the rash and suffers from a chronic health condition
- gets the rash and is taking medications that affect their immune system
- has a fever or is unwell
- has a rash and you’re not sure whether it’s shingles.
You know your child best. If your child seems unwell, trust your instincts and seek medical attention.
If your child has shingles, you can treat their symptoms to help them feel more comfortable.
Paracetamol or ibuprofen might help relieve mild pain. Avoid applying creams or lotions to the rash. If your child has scratched the rash and broken the skin, make sure to clean the area well.
If shingles is diagnosed within 72 hours of the rash starting, your GP might be able to prescribe an antiviral medicine. This can reduce some pain associated with shingles.
Don’t give aspirin to children under 12 years unless it’s prescribed by a doctor. Aspirin can make your child susceptible to Reye’s syndrome, a rare but potentially deadly illness. If you’re giving your child any over-the-counter medicines, check with your pharmacist or doctor to make sure these have no aspirin.
Prevention of shingles
As part of the Australian National Immunisation Program (NIP), your child will get free immunisation against the Varicella zoster virus when they’re 18 months old.
If your child has shingles, try to make sure that everybody who comes into contact with them during this time has been immunised against chickenpox or has had chickenpox before.
Newborn babies and children with low immunity should avoid contact with anyone with shingles.
If you have shingles and are caring for a child, make sure to keep your rash covered to reduce the risk of passing the virus on.
If your child’s shingles rash is completely covered, they can go to school. Your child shouldn’t swim or play contact sports for 7 days after the rash appears. If the rash can’t be covered, your child should stay at home until the rash has scabbed over.