Are You at Risk for Shingles? (5:37)
One out of every three Americans will develop shingles during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You can have shingles at any age, but the risk increases as you get older; about half of all shingles cases happen among those over 60. The shingles virus produces a painful rash that typically appears in a band on one side of your body, sometimes with a fever or headache.
“Shingles is caused by varicella zoster — the same virus that causes chickenpox,” says Wenny Jean, MD, a family medicine doctor at the Kansas Physician Group, associated with Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, Kansas.
Anyone who’s had chickenpox can later develop shingles. That’s because the varicella zoster virus remains dormant, or inactive in your system, explains Dr. Jean.
Later, the virus may reactivate as shingles if:
- Your immune system weakens from a serious medical conditions such as HIV or certain cancers like leukemia and lymphoma
- You’re taking drugs, such as steroids, to suppress your immune system after an organ transplant
- You’re under a great deal of stress. Stress doesn’t directly cause shingles, but it can weaken your immune system, increasing your risk of an outbreak.
If you’ve never had chickenpox, you’re still at risk: If you come into contact with someone who has shingles while they’re contagious, you could develop chickenpox (which would then remain dormant in your system, potentially leading to a case of shingles later).
One important way to reduce your risk of getting varicella zoster is to get the shingles vaccine if you’re over 60. If you’re under 60 and haven’t had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine before, you may need to get that vaccine.
Related: The 5 Vaccines Adults Need
What Are the Symptoms of Shingles?
The symptoms of shingles include:
- Headaches, sensitivity to light
- Body aches
However, the most common symptoms are pain and a blistering rash. The shingles rash almost always appears on one side of your body in a “band” shape. You may feel itching, pain, or tingling in the area before the band appears. In rare cases, people with weak immune systems may have a rash that’s more widespread, crossing over onto both sides of their body.
The shingles rash includes blisters, which burst open, and then crust over within about seven to ten days. The virus is contagious when your blisters are open, so it’s especially important to cover your rash during that time.
“Generally, we recommend for people who have shingles to quarantine, or isolate themselves when they’re contagious,” says Jean. “Don’t share close spaces with household members. Don't, of course, share clothing, bedding, or things like that because you may shed the virus.”