If Barbara Walters Can Get Chicken Pox, Can You?

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It surprised a lot of people to learn that veteran TV journalist Barbara Walters, 83, has chicken pox. Many wondered if maybe she really had shingles, which is caused by the same virus reappearing in older adults. After all, just how common is it for someone in his or her 80s to get a disease most of us have as kids?

The co-host of ABC’s The View was hospitalized after a fall at a pre-inaugural party. On Monday it was announced she had chicken pox.

“Getting chicken pox as an adult is so rare that we consider anyone who is 50 years old to be immune from it. But Barbara Walters’ case shows this isn’t always true,” Marc Leavey, M.D., an internist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, told Newsmax Health. Experts with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say chicken pox affects only one in 10,000 adults and for someone to get the disease in his or her 80s is particularly uncommon.

David Nace, M.D., a physician in the geriatric-medicine division at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told USA Today that 90 percent of people get chicken pox before they’re 13. “I have never seen a case in anyone over the age of 60. In medical literature only a handful of cases are reported among people older than 60.”

It could be that Walters got chicken pox by being exposed to someone with shingles. As Nace explained, if you’ve never had chicken pox, you can catch the virus by being exposed to someone with an active case of shingles.

Chicken pox comes from the varicella-zoster virus, which causes a blister-type rash, itching, fever and fatigue. It can be more severe in adults, and doctors worry about pneumonia because the virus appears to affect the lungs. Shingles, which is an intense rebound version of the same virus, causes an excruciating rash and, if left untreated, can cause vision and nerve damage.

If you’re worried about catching either disease, here are some tips from experts:

* If you’re unsure whether you ever had chicken pox, talk to your doctor about being tested. A simple blood test can show if you have antibodies against chicken pox.

* If you’ve never had chicken pox, ask your doctor about getting a chicken pox vaccine. Robert Glatter, M.D., with Lenox Hill Hospital’s Department of Emergency Medicine in New York City, told HealthDay News: “The chicken pox vaccine isn’t perfect, but studies show that 70 to 90 percent of adults who get the vaccine will be fully protected against the disease.” People who develop chicken pox despite receiving the vaccination will typically experience milder symptoms.

* Avoid people with shingles if you’ve never had chicken pox or are unsure. Both diseases are caused by the same virus, so people who’ve never had chicken pox can catch it from  someone who has an active shingles rash, Glatter said.

* Get a shingles vaccine. It’s recommended for all adults age 60 or older. It won’t necessarily protect you against chicken pox, but it will protect you against shingles, which can be extremely painful and damaging in older adults.