According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one-third of the U.S. population will contract shingles during their lifetime, and the disease affects approximately 1 million citizens each year. With statistics like these, you might worry about developing shingles yourself. But are you at risk for shingles? And if so, what should you do about it?
Before we dive into shingles risk factors and prevention methods, let’s go over the disease itself.
Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, results from the varicella-zoster virus. This viral infection is actually the same one that leads to chickenpox, which many people contract as children (though adults can get chickenpox, too). While chickenpox symptoms eventually disappear, the underlying virus remains dormant in one’s body, just waiting to wreak havoc once more. Of course, the varicella-zoster virus might never reactivate, or might not for several years after one has gone through chickenpox. But, if it does, it often presents as shingles.
Shingles is not life-threatening, but it is undeniably unpleasant and at times can be painful. The disease often presents itself on one side of the body, typically near the torso area, as a stripe or large patch of several red blisters. As such, shingles is often mistaken for hives and vice versa, especially early in development. However, hives result from an allergic reaction, not a viral infection.
The blisters from shingles are usually sensitive to the touch, causing pain, tingling, itchiness, and burning. Eventually, they will break open and crust over. Until then, the virus is contagious and can spread through touch. For some patients, additional shingles symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and general malaise.
Of course, these signs may hint at a condition other than shingles. Still, it’s best to see your doctor when experiencing these symptoms to get a proper diagnosis and receive the best treatment right away.
As mentioned above, anyone who has previously had chickenpox is at risk for shingles. Chickenpox is sort of like a prerequisite for herpes zoster. In other words, those who contract the varicella-zoster virus but have never contracted it before will experience chickenpox symptoms prior to receiving shingles. Not everyone who has had chickenpox will develop shingles, necessarily, but they are the only ones who can.
Having a history of chickenpox isn’t the only risk factor for shingles, though. Those over the age of 50 are also at greater risk of getting shingles, and this risk only increases as people get older. Diseases that alter or weaken the immune system, such as HIV or AIDS, can also increase one’s chances of developing shingles.
Some treatments and medications, like chemotherapy, steroids, and prednisone, which impair the body’s defenses, may also leave one more vulnerable to shingles and other conditions. Lastly, being around those who currently have shingles greatly increases your chances of contracting the virus.
The best way to reduce your chances of getting shingles is to know about the risk factors outlined above and do your best to avoid them. Of course, there’s only so much you can do in this regard. After all, so many people end up with chickenpox early in their lives, and aging is inevitable. And those treatments and medications that may increase your risk of shingles may be necessary to mitigate another, more serious condition.
Ultimately, then, the best way to proactively lower your risk of getting shingles is to get vaccinated. Currently, there are two major FDA-approved immunizations for shingles, in Shingrix and Zostavax. Both have proven useful, but the more recent, Shingrix, has become the preferred shingle prevention method for its longevity and superior effectiveness compared to Zostavax.
Shingles is sneaky, frustrating, and quite common. However, each year it’s becoming easier to prevent and treat. The more you know about the disease, its risk factors, and prevention methods, the less likely you’ll be to develop it yourself.
At North Pacific Dermatology, we’re here to answer your questions about shingles and any other concerns you have about your skin’s health, comfort, and appearance. Contact our team to set up an appointment today.