The varicella-zoster virus is responsible for chicken pox and shingles outbreaks. Shingles, or herpes zoster, is an after-effect of chicken pox. The herpes zoster virus enters your body, usually when you are a child, causing you to experience the itchy red bumps on your skin. While the symptoms of chicken pox fade away, the virus lies dormant in your nerve cells. Anyone who has had chicken pox can get shingles. While the American Academy of Dermatology reports that most cases of shingles occur in older adults, newborns can suffer this disease.
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A newborn catches the varicella-zoster virus differently than the rest of the population. A person with shingles can spread the varicella-zoster virus, but not as effectively as a person with an active case of the chicken pox. Exposure to shingles will cause chicken pox, not shingles. However, a newborn or a person with a weakened immune system, has the highest risk of catching the varicella-zoster virus from a person with shingles rather than from one with chicken pox. The virus spreads when you are in contact with the blisters associated with this viral infection. Once the blisters scar over, you are no longer contagious. A mother exposes her baby to the virus through shared blood supply.
An estimated 17 percent to 30 percent of newborns whose mothers develop the rash associated with varicella-zoster from five days before to two days after delivery face an increased risk of developing neonatal varicella, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Babies born with neonatal varicella have a mortality rate as high as 30 percent. These infants are born without sufficient maternal antibodies to lessen the severity of the disease.
Babies exposed to the virus in the first half of the pregnancy experience an increased risk for developing congenital varicella syndrome. The highest risk for this condition occurs when the mother exposes the baby to the virus during weeks 13 through 20 of gestation. Doctors characterize this condition by low birth weight, skin tissue injury resulting in cutaneous scarring, underdeveloped limbs, abnormally small heads, a neurological disease known as cortical atrophy, and eye problems including cataracts and retinal inflammation.
Doctors will give a dose of varicella-zoster immune globulin to babies who are born five days before or two days after mothers show symptoms of shingles. Pediatricians will recommend varicella-zoster immune globulin, or VZIG, for babies whose mothers do not show evidence of immunity to varicella and for preterm infants. Mothers do not pass the varicella-zoster virus to their babies through breast milk, therefore a mother who shows symptoms of varicella-zoster a week or longer after delivery cannot transmit the virus during breast-feeding.