Shingles and Pregnancy: Know the Risks

What is shingles?

When you’re pregnant, you may worry about being around people who are sick or about developing a health condition that might affect you or your baby. One disease you may be concerned about is shingles.

About 1 in 3 people will develop shingles at some point in their life. Though shingles, or herpes zoster, is more common among older adults, it’s still a disease you should be aware of if you’re expecting a baby.

Shingles is a viral infection that leads to painful, itchy rashes. The same virus that causes chickenpox causes shingles. It’s called the varicella-zoster virus (VZV).

If you had chickenpox when you were young, VZV remains dormant in your system. The virus can become active again and cause shingles. People don’t fully understand why this happens.

Risk of exposure

You can’t catch shingles from another person. You can, however, catch chickenpox at any age if you’ve never had it before. Chickenpox is contagious. It can even be spread when a person with chickenpox coughs.

Someone with shingles can spread the virus to someone else only if that uninfected person has direct contact with a rash that hasn’t yet healed. While you won’t catch shingles from exposure to such individuals, you could be exposed to VZV and develop chickenpox. Shingles could then someday also appear, but only after chickenpox has run its course.

Once you’ve had chickenpox, you’re immune to it for the rest of your life. If you’re pregnant and you’ve never had chickenpox, you should try to avoid being around people who have chickenpox or shingles, even if they’re just getting over their conditions.

Pregnancy concerns

If you’re pregnant and you already had chickenpox, you and your baby are safe from exposure to anyone with chickenpox or shingles. You can, however, develop shingles during your pregnancy if you had chickenpox as a child. Though this is unusual since shingles typically appears after your childbearing years, it can happen. Your baby will be safe if you just develop shingles.

If you notice a rash of any kind while pregnant, tell your doctor. It may not be chickenpox or shingles, but it could be some other potentially serious condition that warrants a diagnosis.

If you’ve never had chickenpox and you’re exposed to someone with chickenpox or shingles, you should also tell your doctor immediately. They may recommend a blood test to help them determine if you have antibodies for the chickenpox virus. If antibodies are present, that means you had chickenpox and maybe don’t remember it, or you were immunized against it. If that’s the case, you and your baby shouldn’t be at risk for the disease.