October 14, 2022
If you were born before 1990, you may remember spending a week home from school with the chickenpox before a vaccine became widely available in 1995. Once you’ve had chickenpox, you’re highly unlikely to get it again, but the disease that caused it may not be done with you just yet.
Shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus — the same disease that causes chickenpox. A third of all adults come down with it at some point in their lives.
After you’ve recovered from a case of chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus can remain inactive in your nervous system for years. Shingles occurs when the virus reactivates and travels along the nerves out to your skin. It’s not known exactly what causes the virus to reactivate and cause shingles, but aging, stress, and a weak immune system can put you at higher risk.
Shingles is not a very contagious disease. The virus, herpes-zoster virus, can be spread through contact with sores caused by shingles, but only to people who are not immune to chickenpox. If it does spread this way, it will cause chickenpox, not shingles, in the person who catches the virus. So, if you have shingles, steer clear of those who haven’t had chickenpox or are unvaccinated.
A case of shingles is painful and can last up to five weeks, but it’s rarely life-threatening. The pain from shingles and its other symptoms affect only part of the body — usually in the form of a trademark red rash on one side of your torso. The rash is usually preceded by pain and burning and may develop into blisters filled with fluid.
Some people may experience fevers, headaches, or fatigue. In rare cases, a complication can cause the pain from shingles to persist for a long time after the rash heals.
If you suspect you have shingles, contact your health care provider right away. There is no cure for the disease, but early treatment can help you heal faster and reduce your risk of experiencing further complications. Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral drug to help combat the disease.
The other main treatment for shingles is pain management. Skin creams, injections, and other numbing agents can all be used to ease the pain and discomfort while you heal.
People over 50 should talk to their health care provider about getting the shingles vaccine, which is 90 percent effective.
If you or someone you know develops shingles, rest assured they’re likely to make a full recovery with no scarring — even if it takes a few painful weeks to get there.