The varicella-zoster virus causes shingles. A viral infection of the nerves just below the skin is the main cause and it is also called zoster or herpes zoster. Though shingles can appear anywhere on the body, it usually appears as a strip of irritated skin or blisters on one side of the back or chest. It can also occur on the face and near the eyes.
Mild symptoms of shingles are seen in many cases, but the more severe ones can be very painful. Generally, older people suffer from severe cases; kids and teens usually have mild cases. Shingles is highly contagious since it is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. It is an after-effect of chicken pox. The virus stays in a person’s nervous system after he/she has had chicken pox. The chickenpox virus or the varicella-zoster virus can stay there dormant in the nerve roots near the spinal cord and in many people it will never be heard from again. In some cases it flares up and causes shingles. The probable explanation of the virus flaring up after months or years of inactivity is our immune system becoming vulnerable to infections with advancing age.
The shingles virus is shed from the rash. Unlike chicken pox, the shingles virus is not transmitted through coughing and sneezing. Thus, if an infected person’s rash is properly covered, another person is not likely to catch the virus from the infected person. A person with active shingles can transmit the varicella-zoster virus to another person who has never had chicken pox or the chicken pox vaccine. In such cases, the newly infected person might develop chicken pox but would not develop shingles.
How babies get the varicella-zoster virus?
The varicella-zoster virus is caught by a newborn baby. A baby is likely to be born with chickenpox if the baby’s mother catches chickenpox within a month before giving birth. In later years, that baby can then develop shingles. Whether or not a pregnant woman has contracted chickenpox in the past can be determined through a blood test. Since pregnancy alters the immunological strength of the expectant mother, chickenpox is quite dangerous in pregnancy. If a woman has chickenpox within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, there is a moderate chance of the new born baby developing foetal varicella syndrome or FVS. Babies whose mothers are exposed to the varicella-zoster virus during week 13 up to week 20 of pregnancy experience a very high risk of developing innate varicella syndrome. Beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy, if a woman catches chickenpox, then the risk of the baby developing varicella syndrome is very low. The foetal varicella syndrome is characterised by low birth weight, skin tissue injury, underdeveloped limbs, abnormally small sized heads, eye problems including eye inflammation, cataracts and cortical atrophy which is a neurological disease. A person infected with shingles should avoid contact with pregnant women who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine until the infected person’s blisters scab over. An infected person must also avoid contact with premature or low birth weight infants since they are more susceptible in acquiring the varicella-zoster virus due to their weak immune systems. If a new born healthy baby is diagnosed with chickenpox then it is considered very good since it is highly likely that the baby has received antibodies from its mother through the placenta. Thus, there is lesser chance of serious side effects in such a baby. In fact, the varicella-zoster virus cannot be transmitted to babies through their mothers’ breast milk.
What are the early signs of Shingles in babies?
Fever, diarrhoea and swollen lymph nodes are early signs of shingles in babies. The main sign of shingles is a red rash and after a few days the painful rashes turn into fluid-filled blisters. As the virus travels down a particular nerve, the blisters usually run in a distinct line. New lumps are seen in the first 2-3 days. The virus spreads when another child, who has never been infected or immunized, comes in contact with the blisters. When the blisters scab over, the infected baby is no longer contagious.
If a baby has not had chickenpox before, can the baby acquire the virus?
A baby won’t have the shingles virus in its system if it has not had chickenpox. Babies suffering from shingles often experience a burning or piercing pain. Because of this, it may be sensitive to touch. It is usually recommended by doctors to hold the baby in a way that would not irritate the rashes. Though there is no cure for shingles, only the symptoms could be treated through antiviral drugs. Applying creams or lotions to the rash should be avoided.
Medicine or treatment for babies
A dose of varicella-zoster immune globulin, or VZIG, carrying antibodies to the chickenpox virus is given to babies 5 days before they were born or 2 days after their mothers show signs of shingles. Babies whose mothers are not immune to the varicella including premature infants are recommended varicella-zoster immune globulin by paediatricians. According to the recommendation of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a US Government agency, every child must receive two doses of the varicella vaccine. First dose should be received at age 12 to 15 months and the second recommended dose at 4 to 6 years.