If you’ve ever talked to anyone who had shingles, you’ve probably heard it’s not a pleasant disease. In fact, it can be downright miserable. While it’s not life-threatening, shingles can be painful and energy-draining. Worse yet, the condition typically comes on unexpectedly. Here’s what you need to know about shingles to help prepare for, or in some cases, prevent an outbreak.
Have You Had Chickenpox?
Shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox, which most people have had at least once in their life. After you’ve had chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus becomes inactive, settling into nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. Years later, it can reactivate and strike out as shingles.
Shingles is characterized by a painful rash with blisters. This rash can occur anywhere on your body, but normally it appears as a single strip of blisters on one side of your torso. Even after the rash goes away, it is possible, although rare, to experience flare-ups. Generally, people don’t experience flare-ups more than twice in their lifetime.
What Causes the Reactivation?
Not everyone who has had chickenpox will suffer from shingles. Doctors have determined that the reactivation of the virus can be caused by advancing age, In fact, about 50 percent of all shingles cases occur in patients older than 60. People with weakened immune systems or autoimmune disorders, such as patients battling cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, or those undergoing treatment for cancer, are also at a higher risk. In addition, there seems to be a link between emotional stress and the development of shingles. This might be because stress has a negative effect on the immune system, thereby weakening it.
If you are experiencing a breakout, it is important to know that singles can be spread to other people through direct contact if your rash is in the blister phase. Before or after the blisters are visible on your skin, you cannot spread it.
Shingles is typically treated through medication to manage the pain and rash during the outbreak, but if you haven’t had it yet, there might be good news.
Reduced Risk Is Possible
There are a few vaccines available to reduce your risk of getting shingles.
If you’ve had chickenpox, but have never had shingles and are over 60, your doctor might recommend you take the varicella-zoster vaccine. Although approved for people older than 50, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t recommend its use until 60 or older. This is a live vaccine given as an injection in the upper arm. As with most vaccines, it will not guarantee that you will never get shingles, but if you do get shingles, it is likely that the vaccine will reduce the severity and length of time you have to deal with it.
Dr. Philip Saikin is an Internal Medicine physician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Pearland Clinic. His goal is to provide care that will help patients and their families live longer by preventing illness. He welcomes new patients and accepts most health insurance plans.