It’s estimated that more than 90% of adults in the US were infected with chickenpox as children.
Although the illness is not typically dangerous, it is highly contagious and often spreads through schools and families.
After a person recovers from chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox remains dormant in the body. In some cases, the virus can reactivate later in life and cause a condition called shingles.
Why Do Shingles Happen?
Approximately 1 out of 3 people in the US will develop shingles at some point.
Overtime (usually a few decades), there is a reduction in T cell immunity to the varicella-zoster virus.
This is why most people who develop shingles are over 50 years old. The virus is still hiding in their nervous system from their earlier chickenpox infection, but their immune system can’t keep it in check anymore.
People immunocompromised with impaired T cell immunity are also at a higher risk of developing shingles and may experience more severe cases. This includes:
- recent transplant recipients
- people receiving immunosuppressive therapy
- people living with lymphoma or leukemia
- people undergoing cancer treatment
- people living with HIV
Initial Symptoms of Shingles
Before the characteristic shingles rash appears, people often report symptoms such as:
These symptoms usually happen on one side of the body and last for a few days before the rash appears.
You may also experience:
Suppose you can identify these early symptoms of shingles and get started on treatment as soon as possible. In that case, you can help shorten the duration of the illness and potentially reduce the severity of symptoms.
The Shingles Rash
Pain will likely increase throughout the following week, and a distinctive rash will appear.
The rash consists of blisters that usually appear in a band or strip around one side of the torso or face.
The blisters are filled with clear fluid and can be very painful. They eventually burst and turn into sores, which will crust over and heal within two to four weeks.
Shingles are not contagious, but the underlying virus that causes the open wounds can spread to anyone who has not had chickenpox before or has not been vaccinated against it.
Antiviral medications can be used to treat shingles and help reduce the severity of symptoms. A person may also be prescribed pain medication to help with the discomfort in some cases.
Potential Complications of Shingles
Shingles can be a very painful illness, but it usually clears up to full recovery within a few weeks.
In some cases, perhaps as much as 10% over the age of 60, the virus can damage the nervous system and cause a complication known as postherpetic neuralgia.
This is when the pain from shingles persists for months or even years after the rash has gone away.
Since treatment options are limited for postherpetic neuralgia, it’s important to do what you can to prevent shingles in the first place.
The best way to do this is by getting the chickenpox and shingles vaccine, which may significantly reduce your risk of developing the condition.
If you think you may have shingles, see a doctor as soon as possible to get a diagnosis and begin treatment.