Shingles

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Overview

Anyone who has already had chickenpox can develop shingles later on. Both are caused by the same virus, known as the varicella-zoster virus. This virus stays dormant (inactive) in the body after a chickenpox infection. But it can become active again years later and cause shingles (herpes zoster): a rash with blisters that usually forms a band across the skin and is often very painful. The rash normally only affects one side of the body.

Shingles is particularly common in older people. Although it can be very unpleasant, it’s usually over in about two to four weeks if there are no complications.

As of 2018, a shingles vaccination is recommended for people over the age of 60. People who have a weakened immune system or a chronic disease are advised to have the vaccination when they have reached the age of 50.

Shingles is contagious, but only for people who have never had chickenpox. In that case the infection only causes chickenpox at first, and not shingles.

Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of shingles usually affect only a small section of one side of your body. These signs and symptoms may include:

Pain, burning, numbness or tingling

Sensitivity to touch

A red rash that begins a few days after the pain

Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over

Itching

Some people also experience:

Fever

Headache

Sensitivity to light

Fatigue

Pain is usually the first symptom of shingles. For some, it can be intense. Depending on the location of the pain, it can sometimes be mistaken for a symptom of problems affecting the heart, lungs or kidneys. Some people experience shingles pain without ever developing the rash.

Causes

Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox. If you’ve already had chickenpox, you can develop shingles when this virus reactivates in your body.

The reason why shingles develops in some people but not others is unclear. It’s more common in older adults because of lower immunity to infections.

Possible risk factors for shingles include:

a weakened immune system

emotional stress

aging

undergoing cancer treatments or major surgery

Risk factors

Shingles can occur in anyone who has had chickenpox. However, certain factors put people at an increased risk of developing shingles. According to the NIATrusted Source, these include:

being 60 years or older

having conditions that weaken your immune system, such as HIV or cancer

having had chemotherapy or radiation treatment

taking medications that weaken your immune system, such as steroids or medications given after an organ transplant

having had shingles before

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Complications

While shingles can be painful and bothersome on its own, it’s important to monitor your symptoms for potential complications:

Eye damage can occur if you have a rash or blister too close to your eye. The cornea is particularly vulnerable.

Bacterial skin infections can easily occur from open blisters and can be severe.

Pneumonia is possible.

Ramsay Hunt syndrome can occur if shingles affects the nerves in your head and can result in partial facial paralysis or hearing loss if untreated. If treated within 72 hours, most people make a full recovery.

Brain or spinal cord inflammation, such as encephalitis or meningitis, is possible. These complications are serious and life threatening.

Prevention

The NIATrusted Source says that getting vaccinated can help keep you from developing severe shingles symptoms or complications. All children should receive two doses of the chickenpox vaccine, also known as a varicella immunization. Adults who’ve never had chickenpox should also get this vaccine.

The immunization doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t get chickenpox, but it does prevent it in 9 out of 10 people who get the vaccine.

Adults who are 50 years or olderTrusted Source should get a shingles vaccine, also known as the varicella-zoster immunization, according to the CDC. This vaccine helps to prevent severe symptoms and complications associated with shingles.

There is one shingles vaccine available, Shingrix (recombinant zoster vaccine). The CDCTrusted Source notes that if you have received Zostavax, a shingles vaccine used in the past, you should still get the Shingrix vaccine.