Those of us who suffered through chickenpox as children can likely recall the itchiness, oatmeal baths, high fevers and staying home from school. It was a rite of passage for making it to adulthood with the knowledge that the illness wouldn’t rear its ugly head when we got older.
The reality is that if you had the chickenpox, you are at risk of developing shingles in adulthood. And while it most often affects older adults, anyone with a compromised immune system can contract the disease.
Only adults who have had chickenpox can get shingles. This is because the virus that causes chickenpox — varicella-zoster — is the same one that causes shingles. Once the virus is in you, it remains inactive in nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. As you get older and your ability to fight infection decreases, the virus may reactivate as shingles.
Other than having the chickenpox, you are more likely to develop shingles if you are older than 50 years, your immune system is compromised from such illnesses as HIV/AIDS or cancer, you are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation, or you are taking certain medications, including prolonged use of steroids.
Shingles usually affects a small area of your body and can include pain, burning, numbness or tingling; rash; fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over; itching; fever; chills; headache; and fatigue.
The first sign of shingles is often pain, and can be confused with other health problems. This is especially true if no rash accompanies the pain. More often, shingles sufferers will develop a rash around either side of their torso, with some getting it around an eye or one side of the neck or face.
For most shingles sufferers, the worst is over once the blisters have cleared. However, some people may develop more serious complications, including postherpetic neuralgia, a condition that occurs when damaged nerve fibers send exaggerated messages of pain from the skin to the brain. Other complications can include vision loss if the shingles occurred around the eyes and neurological problems if the shingles affected certain nerves.
Shingles is incurable but can be managed and healed quickly with the use of prescription antiviral drugs, including acyclovir (Zovirax), calacyclovir (Valtrex) and famciclovir (Famvir). In addition, pain medications, such as codeine, may be prescribed.
You can also ease the discomfort of shingles by taking a cool bath or using a cool, wet compress on your blisters.
Shingles itself is not contagious. As mentioned above, in order to develop the disease, you have to already have the virus inside you. However, if someone, usually a child, comes in direct contact with the open sores of a rash, he or she can develop chickenpox if he or she never had the disease. Shingles generally does not infect the lungs and therefore can’t be spread through the air, making transmission almost impossible without direct contact.
If you are older than 50 and concerned about shingles, you may want to consider taking the varicella-zoster vaccine (Zostavax). It is important to understand, however, that the vaccine cannot guarantee you won’t get shingles; it can improve your chances of having a less severe disease and reduce your risk of postherpetic neuralgia. It is also important to note that the vaccine is not intended to treat current shingles sufferers.
If you are a new parent, you are probably familiar with the varicella (Varivax) vaccine, which has become a routine childhood immunization to prevent chickenpox. Similar to the shingles vaccine, it doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get chickenpox or shingles, but it can reduce your chances of complications and the severity of the illness.
For more information about shingles, click here.