Shingles: The Sleeping Virus

Shingles: The Sleeping Virus

Shingles: The Sleeping Virus

You may have heard shingles is a painful rash that is more common among older adults. What you may not know is how widespread it really is, how many people suffer with it, and how you can protect yourself.

Nearly one-in-three Americans will have a bout with shingles. Even children can contract it.

What Is Shingles?

Shingles is a viral infection. The same virus (varicella zoster) that causes chickenpox triggers shingles. If you’ve had chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in your body. If it becomes active again later, it causes shingles.

While shingles isn’t life-threatening, it can be very uncomfortable. Its painful rash can appear anywhere on your body, but it most often occurs as a cluster of blisters on the sides of  the torso. Other symptoms can include a fever, headache and upset stomach.

Who Can Get Shingles?

Anyone who has had chickenpox or received the chickenpox vaccine can get shingles. Your chances of getting shingles increase as you get older. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly half of all people who get shingles are over the age of 60.

Other risk factors can include a weak immune system caused by cancer, HIV, AIDS and other conditions. The use of certain medications such as steroids and anti-rejection drugs that help prevent the body’s rejection of transplanted organs can also boost the risk.

How Does the Virus Spread?

The only way you can get shingles is if you’ve had chickenpox. You cannot “catch” shingles from someone else. If you’ve never had chickenpox, coming into contact with the shingles rash may cause chickenpox. To prevent this, anyone with shingles should keep their rash covered, avoid scratching or touching it, and wash their hands regularly.

How Is Shingles Treated?

Since shingles is caused by a virus, there is no magic pill or treatment to get rid of it. Your doctor can give you medication to speed up the healing process. To help with pain, your doctor may also prescribe pain medications and soothing creams for the rash.

Shingles usually lasts between two and six weeks. It’s possible that you can get shingles more than once, but most people usually get it only once.

Can Shingles be Prevented?

The only way to protect yourself from shingles is to get vaccinated. The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 60 get the shingles vaccine, even if you have had shingles before. Talk with your doctor if you have any questions about the shingles vaccine or would like to get it.

Sources: Shingles, leaving site icon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022; Shingles, leaving site icon Mayo Clinic, 2022

Originally published 2/9/2016; Revised 2021, 2023