Shingles is painful. You might have an itchy rash, blisters and burning, shooting pain. Shingles happens when a trigger reawakens chickenpox virus that lies dormant in your body after you’ve had that illness.
"Even If you had a mild form of chickenpox where you didn't suffer from symptoms, you can develop shingles," says Farvah Fatima, M.D., a family medicine specialist at Henry Ford Health. In fact, about one in three adults develop shingles over the course of their lifetimes — and some people will get it more than once.
Who Is At Risk?
Anyone who has had chickenpox has the varicella-zoster virus in their body. Scientists don't completely understand what reawakens the virus, but they know that certain groups have a higher risk:
- Age: Your risk of developing shingles increases with age. Unfortunately, aging impacts our immune system's ability to fight off infection. Vulnerability starts around age 40, when the immunity conferred from the chickenpox virus begins to decline.
- People with an existing health problem: Any chronic condition, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), cancer or autoimmune disease can affect your immune system's ability to fight shingles infection. Illnesses like cold, flu and COVID-19 can also increase your risk of developing shingles.
- Stress: While there's no evidence that stress directly increases your risk of getting shingles, chronic stress and anxiety may compromise your immune system. Shingles tends to take hold when our immune systems are most vulnerable.
The good news: Shingles is not contagious; you can't catch it from someone. But you can catch chickenpox from someone who has shingles. This is especially concerning for people who haven't been exposed to the virus, including unvaccinated children.
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What Does Shingles Look Like?
Shingles can be mild or severe. It can show up in one location or in different places, from face to limbs. "But the most common place for shingles lesions to appear is on the trunk of the body," Dr. Fatima says.
Most people who have shingles develop some or all of the following symptoms:
- Burning, itching or tingling on the skin
- Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills and headaches
- Fluid-filled blisters
- Sensitive skin
- Mild itching to strong pain
Depending on where shingles develops and evolves, you may also experience symptoms such as hiccups and loss of vision.
Most cases of shingles resolve within a few weeks, but the resulting nerve pain can last for months or even years after the rash disappears. The older you are when you develop shingles, the greater your odds of suffering from long-term symptoms.
What Should People Know About Shingles?
Shingles is largely preventable. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Shingrix vaccine in 2017; it’s 97% effective among adults under age 70 and 90% effective for those over 70. If you're over 50, you should get vaccinated against shingles, even if you've already had the disease or don't recall having chickenpox.
"If you get two doses of the vaccine, spaced two months apart at age 50, you're largely protected for life," Dr. Fatima says. "You might still get shingles, but it will be a milder case than without vaccination." A small subset of people may develop local arm pain and flu-like symptoms after the vaccine, but these symptoms only last for a few days.
If you think you might have shingles, see your health care provider as soon as possible. While there's no cure, your doctor can prescribe medication to help the virus clear faster and limit pain.
To find a doctor at Henry Ford and make an appointment, visit henryford.com.
Dr. Farvah Fatima is a family medicine doctor who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Farmington Road.