What are chickenpox and shingles tests?
These tests check to see if you are or have ever been infected with the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). This virus causes chickenpox and shingles. When you are first infected with VZV, you get chickenpox. Once you get chickenpox, you can’t get it again. The virus remains in your nervous system but is dormant (inactive). Later in life, VZV can become active and can cause shingles. Unlike chicken pox, you can get shingles more than once, but it is rare.
Both chickenpox and shingles cause blistering skin rashes. Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease that causes red, itchy sores (pox) all over the body. It used to be a very common childhood disease, infecting nearly all children in the United States. But since a chickenpox vaccine was introduced in 1995, there have been far fewer cases. Chickenpox may be uncomfortable, but it’s usually a mild illness in healthy children. But it can be serious for adults, pregnant women, newborns, and people with weakened immune systems.
Shingles is a disease that only affects people who once had chickenpox. It causes a painful, burning rash that may stay in one part of the body or spread to many parts of the body. Nearly one-third of people in the United States will get shingles at some point in their lifetime, most often after the age of 50. Most people who develop shingles recover in three to five weeks, but it sometimes causes long-term pain and other health problems.
Other names: varicella-zoster virus antibody, serum varicella immunoglobulin G antibody level, VZV antibodies IgG and IgM, herpes zoster
What are they used for?
Healthcare providers can usually diagnose chickenpox or shingles with a visual examination. Tests are sometimes ordered to check for immunity to the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). You have immunity if you’ve had chickenpox before or have had the chickenpox vaccine. If you have immunity, it means you can’t get chickenpox, but you can still get shingles later in life.
Tests may be done on people who don’t have or are unsure about immunity and are at higher risk of complications from VZV. These include:
- Pregnant women
- Newborns, if the mother is infected.
- Teen and adults with symptoms of chickenpox
- People with HIV/AIDS or another condition that weakens the immune system.
Why do I need a chickenpox or shingles test?
You may need a chickenpox or shingles test if you are at risk for complications, are not immune to VZV, and/or have symptoms of infection. Symptoms of the two diseases are similar and include:
- Red, blistering rash. Chickenpox rashes often appear all over the body and are usually very itchy. Shingles sometimes appear in just one area and are often painful.
- Sore throat
You may also need this test if you are in a high-risk group and were recently exposed to chickenpox or shingles. You can’t catch shingles from another person. But the shingles virus (VZV) can be spread and cause chickenpox in someone who doesn’t have immunity.
What happens during chickenpox and shingles testing?
You will need to provide a sample of blood from your vein or from the fluid in one of your blisters. Blood tests check for antibodies to the VZV. Blister tests check for the virus itself.
For a blood test from a vein, a healthcare professional will take a blood sample from a vein in your arm, using a small needle. After the needle is inserted, a small amount of blood will be collected into a test tube or vial. You may feel a little sting when the needle goes in or out.
For a blister test, a healthcare provider will gently press a cotton swab on a blister to collect a sample of fluid for testing.
Both types of tests are quick, usually taking less than five minutes.
Will I need to do anything to prepare for the test?
You don’t have any special preparations for a blood or blister test.
Are there any risks to the test?
After a blood test, you may have slight pain or bruising at the spot where the needle was put in, but most symptoms go away quickly. There is no risk to having a blister test.
What do the results mean?
If you have symptoms and results show VZV antibodies or the virus itself, it’s likely you have chickenpox or shingles. Your diagnosis of either chickenpox or shingles will depend on your age and specific symptoms. If your results show antibodies or the virus itself and you don’t have symptoms, you either once had chickenpox or received the chickenpox vaccine.
If you are diagnosed with an infection and are in a high-risk group, your healthcare provider may prescribe antiviral medicines. Early treatment can prevent serious and painful complications.
Most healthy children and adults with chickenpox will recover from chickenpox within a week or two. Home treatment can help relieve symptoms. More serious cases may be treated with antiviral medicines. Shingles may also be treated with antiviral medicines as well as pain relievers.
If you have questions about your results or your child’s results, talk to your healthcare provider.
Is there anything else I need to know about chickenpox and shingles tests?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the chickenpox vaccine for children, teens, and adults who never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine. Some schools require this vaccine for admittance. Check with your child’s school and your child’s health care provider for more information.
The CDC also recommends that healthy adults age 50 and older get two doses of the shingles vaccine called Shingrix, separated by 2 to 6 months. The vaccine provides strong protection against shingles and complications from the disease. You should get the vaccine even if you’ve already had shingles, as it may prevent future outbreaks.
A different shingles vaccine called Zostavax is no longer available in the United States. If you had a Zostavax vaccine in the past, you should still get vaccinated with Shingrix. Talk to your healthcare provider about the best time to get Shingrix.
Source: MedlinePlus, National Library of Medicine
MedlinePlus brings together authoritative health information from the National Library of Medicine (NLM), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other government agencies and health-related organizations.