What Is Shingles and What Causes It?

You can think of shingles as the one-two punch of infections. Anyone who ever gets it had a case of the chickenpox first, often many decades earlier. The reason these two conditions are paired up is they come from the same virus.

Chickenpox causes itchy blisters that might start on your back, chest, and face and spread to the rest of your body. Shingles is a rash with shooting pain. It usually shows up on just one side of your body.

If you start to feel tingly and itchy on one side of your torso and then notice a rash, call your doctor right away so they can examine you and determine if you have shingles. When it gets into your body, the first problem it causes is chickenpox, also called varicella. You may think of it as a childhood disease, but adults can get it, too. After the chickenpox runs its itchy course, the virus retreats to nerve tissues near your spinal cord and brain, where it hides out. Doctors don’t know why, but sometimes the virus “wakes up” and travels along nerve fibers to your skin. That’s when it lands its second punch —shingles, also called herpes zoster.

Who gets it? If you’ve had chickenpox, you’re more likely to get shingles if you are 50 or older, are under a lot of stress, have had a physical trauma, or take long-term steroids or other medicines that can weaken your immune system. A weakened immune system might wake the virus up. Also people who have cancer, HIV, or another disease that lower your body’s defenses are at a higher risk.

What can you do to prevent shingles? Get vaccinated. The FDA has approved two shingles vaccines: Shingrix and Zostavax. Shingrix is newer and is preferred over Zostavax because it is considered 90% effective. The CDC recommends people 50 and older get it, even if you’ve had shingles before. You should also get it even if you have previously had the Zostavax vaccine.

Holly Zielinski is the Chief Operating Officer for SeniorsPlus.

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