Can adults catch chickenpox?

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi
Adult checking for chickenpox
Most people catch chickenpox before the age of 10, but adults can catch it too and the symptoms can be more severe. We explain the difference between shingles and chickenpox and when to speak to a doctor

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Most people tend to catch the chickenpox virus as a child. 90% of people experience chickenpox by the age of 15 and remember the itchy spots for years to come.

The good news is that you’re unlikely to catch it again as an adult, and it’s very rare for a second chickenpox infection to happen in the same person.

However, teenagers and adults can still catch chickenpox. If you didn’t have childhood chickenpox, you’re more susceptible to catching it as an adult. So, why is chickenpox more severe when you’re older, what’s the difference between adult chickenpox and shingles, and what are the key symptoms to look out for?

Here, we answer the biggest questions.

What are the symptoms of teenage or adult chickenpox?

The symptoms of chickenpox tend to be more severe in teenagers and adults compared with children. Symptoms tend to develop about 10-21 days after your exposure to the virus. Initial symptoms can include:

  • A high temperature
  • Aches and pains
  • Headache

For adults, the itchy chickenpox rash tends to develop on the face and scalp about a day after these initial symptoms. Itchy spots may also appear on the chest, stomach, arms and legs. The number of spots varies for different people.

The spots can turn into blisters and scab over, fading after around a week and sometimes taking 2–3 weeks to disappear completely.

Other chickenpox symptoms in adults include:

  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Generally feeling unwell

What’s the difference between chickenpox and shingles?

Once a child has had a chickenpox infection, the virus remains dormant in their nerves. Although the chickenpox virus can remain in the nervous system indefinitely without causing symptoms, reactivation of the virus can cause shingles.

Shingles appears as an itchy skin rash on one side of the body and can cause tingling pain, fever, chills, headache and fatigue.

You can’t catch shingles from another person, it’s only possible to develop shingles if you’ve already had chickenpox. Someone who has never had chickenpox can develop chickenpox after coming into contact with the fluid from someone’s shingles rash if it becomes blistered.

Shingles tends to happen in adults. The risk of developing it increases with age and is also higher in those with weakened immune systems. Around 20-30% adults will develop shingles.

There’s a shingles vaccination available for people aged between 70-79, which makes the illness much milder and shorter if you catch it.

How long does it take for symptoms of adult chickenpox to develop?

Symptoms usually appear 10 days to 3 weeks after exposure to someone else with the disease (usually an infectious child). The virus is very contagious and spreads very easily through droplets.

Chickenpox is a seasonal disease and so most cases happen in winter and spring.

How long does chickenpox last?

The average recovery time for adult chickenpox is within 1–2 weeks of the first symptoms.

Is chickenpox in adults dangerous?

In adults, chickenpox symptoms tend to be more severe, and there’s a greater chance of you developing complications from the infection.

The blisters may become infected with bacteria from the surface of the skin and require treatment with antibiotics. In very rare cases these infections become serious and require hospital treatment.

How is chickenpox treated in adults?

Although there’s no specific medication to treat chickenpox, there are several remedies that can help alleviate symptoms while the chickenpox clears up itself:

  • Stay hydrated and drink plenty of water
  • Take paracetamol to relieve a temperature if you have one – although avoid ibuprofen as it has been associated with some severe skin reactions
  • Bathe in cool water or apply calamine lotion to easy itching
  • Wearing cotton clothes can help and try to avoid being either too hot or cold
  • Trim your nails short so that you don’t damage the skin with scratching – this can lead to a bacterial infection

If your blisters become infected – if they’re hot, painful or red – speak to a doctor who may need to prescribe antibiotics. If your symptoms are severe, a GP may prescribe antiviral medication.

Is there a vaccine to prevent chickenpox in adults?

A vaccine against chickenpox is available to protect people at a higher risk of developing complications, or those who could put others at risk, such as healthcare workers who aren’t immune to chickenpox.

Advice for protecting others against adult chickenpox

Chickenpox is very contagious and spreads through the air from person to person – it’s contagious 2 days before the rash develops.

So, if you suspect you have chickenpox, avoid going into work, crowded areas or any places with vulnerable people, until your blisters have crusted over. This is usually about 5 days after the rash starts.

When should I speak to a doctor?

You should get checked out by a doctor (or call 111) if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • The skin around your blisters is hot, painful and red, indicating a possible infection
  • Breathing problems
  • Headaches that worsen despite taking paracetamol
  • Convulsions
  • A very severe rash – for example in the mouth that prevents drinking

If you're seeing a doctor face-to-face, it’s important to ring ahead to your GP surgery so that they can make arrangements to isolate you from potentially vulnerable patients.

This article has been medically reviewed by Dr Bryony Henderson

Speak to a GP about chickenpox symptoms

A GP can advise you further on any necessary chickenpox treatment for you or your child.

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