Chickenpox is a viral infection very common in young children, and it’s caused by the varicella-zoster virus. The very same virus also causes another type of infection, known as shingles. If you’ve had the chickenpox, you already have the varicella-zoster virus in your body, it’s just dormant. So the myth that once you’ve had chickenpox, you can’t get it again is just that: a myth. You won’t develop the same infection symptoms, but the same virus can make you sick, again. But there are ways to lower your risk of becoming sick from the varicella-zoster virus a second time.
What, Exactly, is Shingles?
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. Although shingles can occur anywhere on your body, it most often appears as a single stripe of blisters that wraps around either the left or the right side of your torso.”
Once you’ve had chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus lies inactive in nerve tissues around your spinal cord and brain. Years after the initial infection, the varicella-zoster virus can reactivate as shingles.
While shingles isn’t a life-threatening condition, it can be extremely painful, and in some cases, cause complications.
The symptoms of shingles typically affect a small section of one side of the body. These symptoms can include:
- Sensitivity to touch
- Pain, burning, numbness or tingling
- Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
- A red rash that begins a few days after the pain
Less common symptoms can include:
- Sensitivity to light
Pain is often the first symptom of shingles and can be extreme. Depending on the location of the pain, shingles can sometimes be misdiagnosed as a symptom of a problem affecting the kidneys, lungs, or heart.
In most cases, the shingles rash develops as a strip of blisters that wrap around one side of the torso, but the rash can also occur around one eye or on the side of the face or neck.
Your Risk of Developing Shingles Increases With Age
Most adults in the United States had chickenpox as a child. The exact cause of shingles remains unknown, but it’s theorized that a weakened immune system is partly to blame. Because of this, shingles is most common in older adults, and if you’ve had the chickenpox, your risk of developing shingles increases with every year of age after 50. Some experts estimate that up to 50% of people over age 80 will have shingles.
Other risk factors include:
- Having certain diseases. Any disease that weakens your immune system can increase your risk of developing shingles (if you’ve had chickenpox).
- Taking certain medications, including cancer treatment drugs. Any drug that lowers your immune system increases your risk of developing shingles, including cancer-treating drugs, steroids, and medicines designed to lower the risk of organ transplant rejection.
How to Minimize Your Risk of Developing Shingles
One of the best ways to minimize your risk of developing shingles is to maintain a healthy immune system.
Another method of reducing the risk of shingles is reducing the risk of chickenpox. The varicella vaccine (Varivax) has become a routine immunization for children to prevent chickenpox. The vaccine is also routinely recommended to adults who have never had chickenpox. And while the vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t get chickenpox or shingles, it can reduce your chances of complications from the disease, as well as reduce the severity, should you develop chickenpox.
There are also two vaccines known to reduce the risk of developing shingles in adults who have had chickenpox:
- Zostavax. This immunization was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006 and has been shown to offer protection against shingles for around five years. Zostavax is a live vaccine that’s given as a single injection, usually in the upper arm. Zostavax isn’t recommended for use in people under the age of 60.
- Shingrix. Shingrix was approved by the FDA in 2017 and is a preferred alternative to Zostavax. Studies suggest that Shingrix offers shingles protection beyond five years. Shingrix is a nonliving vaccine made of a virus component. It’s given in two doses, with up to six months between doses. Shingrix has been approved and recommended for people 50 years of age and older, including those who’ve previously received Zostavax.
The most common side effects of both shingles vaccines are redness, tenderness, swelling, itching, pain at the injection site, and headaches.
As with the chickenpox vaccine, neither shingles vaccine guarantees you won’t get shingles. But receiving a shingles vaccine will reduce your risk of developing shingles and can also reduce the severity and length of the disease should you contract it.
If you’ve had the chickenpox, especially if you’re aged 50 or older, it’s important to weigh all your options concerning the prevention of developing shingles.