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Simple steps to reduce your risk of shingles

Created date

November 29th, 2017
Man with shingles.

Man with shingles.

If you ever had chickenpox, the virus that causes it—varicella zoster virus, or VZV—is still in your system. Specifically, VZV has been hiding out in your nerve cells. If you are lucky, it will stay there. 

But if the virus emerges again, it causes shingles. “When VZV reactivates, it begins to replicate and travel along the nerve to the skin,” says Aileen M. Marty, M.D., infectious disease specialist and professor at Florida International University Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine in Miami, Fla. “The result is inflammation and a rash with blisters. The rash is often painful because the virus affects sensory nerves.” 

The shingles rash usually develops on one side of the body. Some people may experience itching or tingling in the affected area a few days before it appears. Others may have additional symptoms including headaches, nausea, chills, and fever. In a week to ten days, the blisters form scabs and the rash begins to disappear.

Risks 

One out of three people in the U.S. will develop shingles in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About half of all cases occur in people older than 60.

Increasing age isn’t the only risk factor. “Shingles is more common in people with a weakened immune system due to acute or chronic illness,” says Mary Norman, M.D., medical director at Highland Springs, an Erickson Living community in Dallas, Tex. “Medications that affect your immune system, such as steroids or chemotherapy, can also make you more susceptible.” 

“Even if you are quite healthy, any insult to your body such as underlying illnesses, infections, malnutrition, or an injury due to trauma can cause VZV to reactivate,” Marty adds. 

In some people, there may be no apparent cause, although researchers have identified a link between shingles and emotional stress.

Complications

On the spectrum of serious illnesses, a shingles rash may not seem like a big deal, but don’t be fooled. “Shingles can lead to many other problems, including vision and hearing difficulties, or complications with your other bodily organs or systems,” Marty says.

By far the most common complication of shingles is lingering nerve pain called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). Pain related to PHN can be mild to severe. In most people, it clears up in a few weeks or months, but PHN can persist for years. According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, having PHN lowers someone’s quality of life about as much as having congestive heart failure, a heart attack, or type 2 diabetes. 

“PHN occurs because the nerve fibers are damaged from the virus,” Marty explains. “They begin sending exaggerated pain signals to your brain. The risk of PHN is higher if you have a medical condition such as diabetes.”

Preventing and treating shingles 

You can reduce your risk of shingles by taking a few simple measures.

“The shingles vaccine is the most important single intervention that anyone can use,” Marty says. “It reduces the likelihood of developing the disease and related complications.”

According to the CDC, the vaccine reduces the likelihood of shingles by about 50%, and reduces the risk of PHN by nearly 70%. Although the vaccine isn’t foolproof, it may also help reduce the severity of your symptoms if you have an episode. In addition, the vaccine is most effective if given between 60 and 69 years of age.

The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases recommends that, if your doctor approves it, you can get the shingles vaccine 6 to 12 months after you’ve had an episode to help prevent future occurrences.

“Eating well, staying fit, and managing stress are very important to stay in the best health and reduce your risk,” Marty says.

If you notice an unfamiliar rash, feel unusual tingling or itching on your skin, or develop any other possible shingles-related symptoms, see your doctor immediately. The sooner you are treated, the better. “Taking antiviral medications before blisters appear or soon thereafter can help shorten the duration of the disease,” Marty says. “Your doctor can also recommend other medications and treatments that may help reduce the severity of your symptoms.”

The risk of transmission is small, but while you have the rash, stay away from people who have never had chickenpox. “There is about a 2% chance that someone with no history of chickenpox or who hasn’t had the chickenpox vaccine could get sick if exposed to someone with shingles,” Marty says. To further reduce that risk, keep the affected area of skin completely covered.

 

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