Shingles is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus which can develop in individuals who have already had chickenpox. It typically occurs many years after being infected and causes painful blisters to surface all over the affected area. The most common areas of the body for shingles to appear are the head, arms and either the right or left side of the torso. It is unlikely to develop shingles during pregnancy, but if you do, there is little to be concerned about. Shingles does not pose any risk to the fetus or to the mother.
Causes of shingles during pregnancy
The cause of shingles during pregnancy is no different than the cause for someone who is not pregnant. For those who have already had chickenpox, the varicella zoster virus (VZV) can lay dormant in the body’s system for many, many years. Later in life, for an unknown reason and at an unexpected time, certain triggers can cause the virus to reactivate and come back as a different form of chickenpox, known as shingles. Most often, these triggers are related to either stress or a weakened immune system.
Signs of shingles during pregnancy
The most common sign of having shingles is a painful rash which develops on one part of the body or face. The rash typically spreads over a large part of the skin and forms tiny clusters of blisters all over the affected area. These blisters will scab over within 7 to 10 days and eventually clear up and go away within 2 to 4 weeks. Other early signs of shingles include sensitivity to light, flu-like symptoms without a fever and itching, numbness or tingling around the affected area.
Treating shingles during pregnancy
There is no cure for shingles during pregnancy, but treatment can still be used to help shorten the duration of the virus and make the healing process more comfortable. For those who seek treatment within the first 3 days of having shingles, medication can take effect more quickly and help the virus along faster than those who wait to receive treatment. Treatment for shingles is typically administered through one of the following:
- Antiviral medications: Used to reduce the pain and duration of the virus
- Over-the-counter pain medications: Acetaminophen, Aspirin or Ibuprofen can also be used to help reduce pain.
- Topical antibiotics: Can be applied directly to the skin to help reduce blisters, itching and pain.
Preventing shingles during pregnancy
Unfortunately, there is no true prevention for shingles during pregnancy, especially if you have already had chickenpox at some point in your life. There are, however, ways to help prevent triggers from causing stress, or a weakened immune system, which could reactivate the virus. During pregnancy, it is important to find ways to relax and enjoy your time being pregnant. Rely on your partner and family for support and ask for help when you need it. And keep your body energized with the appropriate hydration, nutrients and rest.
For women who have not had chickenpox or the vaccination, it is important to avoid contact with anyone you know who has shingles because it is highly infectious and it will actually develop as chickenpox, not as shingles, for the first time. You can learn about chickenpox during pregnancy here. You should also let your doctor know during your first prenatal visit if you have not had the VZV vaccination.
Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy, New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
U.S National Library of Medicine http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001861/
National Institution for Neurological Disorders and Stroke http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/shingles/shingles.htm
March of Dimes http://newsmomsneed.marchofdimes.com/?p=12169=6