Shingles and pregnancy

Shingles in pregnancy isn't a big worry but its sister virus chickenpox can be. Here's what you need to know

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Anyone who’s had shingles will tell you that it’s pretty unpleasant and best avoided at all costs, although it generally isn’t harmful.

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It’s common too, with one in five of us suffering at some point. 

The good news is, you cannot catch shingles. The bad news is, if you’ve not had chickenpox before, you can catch that from someone with shingles, although the infection risk is fairly low.

Confused? Don’t worry. If you do develop either shingles or chickenpox in pregnancy, it will be uncomfortable but not too much of a worry, and you will likely be referred to a specialist.

So what exactly is shingles?

Shingles (also known as herpes zoster) is an infection of the nerves and the skin around it. It is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, varicella-zoster.

Once you’ve had chickenpox, a small amount of this virus lays dormant in your body, generally in the nerve roots close to your spinal cord. It’s harmless and you’ll feel perfect well.

However, years later, it can be reactivated and travels along the nerves to the skin, leading to shingles.

No one knows exactly why it does this but it might be linked to having a lowered immunity, as a result of things like old age, an organ transplant or chemotherapy.

What does it look like?

A painful, red skin rash that develops into blisters. It’s pretty yucky. The pain – a dull or burning sensation – comes first and is followed by the rash. You may also get a headache, feel generally unwell and have a high temperature.

The rash starts off as red blotches and turns into itchy blisters before scabbing over, like chickenpox.

Shingles develops on areas of skin that are related to nerves. The most common place to get it is on your stomach and chest, although any part of the body can be affected. It tends to be on one side of the body or the other, too. So all in all, it’s not very attractive and incredibly uncomfortable.

The illness generally lasts between two and four weeks.

Should I avoid someone who has shingles?

Since you can’t catch shingles, the only concern about being around a sufferer is catching chickenpox.

“If you had chickenpox as a child – and most women have had chickenpox before they become pregnant – then you do not need to worry whether you are near someone with shingles,” says GP Dr Philippa Kaye.  

But if you are pregnant and haven’t had chickenpox, or you’re not sure if you have, try to avoid contact with anyone who has shingles.

Dr Philippa says: “If you have not had chickenpox and have been exposed to someone with either chickenpox or shingles, then you can catch chickenpox.” 

What should I do if I am exposed and I’ve never had chickenpox?

If this happens accidentally, or is unavoidable, don’t panic. The risk of catching the virus and getting chickenpox is low, particularly if the person’s shingles rash is covered by clothing or a dressing. The virus is usually passed on by direct contact, like touching an infected person’s open blisters.

Your first action should be to see your doctor or midwife, who might suggest you have the chickenpox vaccine. It contains a small amount of weakened live varicella-zoster virus and causes your immune system to produce antibodies that will help protect against chickenpox.

Mum of two malakin had the vaccine. She says: When I was 6 weeks pregnant my daughter got shingles. I’d never had chickenpox so I had a blood test to see if I was immune to the virus. I wasn’t and had to had two lots of injections (in the bum..very very painful!). This covered me for 12 weeks. At 18 weeks a very close friend of my godson caught it, so I went back to the doc who and I had to have the injections again (ouch)”.

One mum, Sscn, writing on our forums says: “I was exposed to chickenpox while in the second trimester with my first, so know the risk it can be. Then OH ended up with shingles so I had to go to my 20 week scan alone as he obviously couldn’t be on a maternity ward!”

Is my baby at risk?

It’s not ideal to be in close contact with someone with shingles if you haven’t had chickenpox before. This is because there’s a small risk the baby can develop foetal varicella syndrome (FVS) up to 28 weeks. FVS can damage the baby’s skin, eyes, legs, arms, brain, bladder or bowel.

If you catch chickenpox between weeks 28 and 36 of pregnancy, the virus stays in the baby’s body but doesn’t cause any symptoms. However, it may become active again in the first few years of the baby’s life, causing shingles.

If you catch chickenpox after 36 weeks, the baby may be infected and could be born with chickenpox. 

“I’m 8 weeks this week and have just been diagnosed with shingles. It’s really painful and I felt a bit of an idiot at the do’s as I burst into tears but she assured me there’s a low risk to the bean,” says Pcroson.

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