Shingles, a viral infection that causes a painful rash, may be more common than you realize.
About 1 million cases of shingles occur in the United States each year, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID). The foundation also says that about 1 in 3 people will develop shingles at some point in their lifetime, and the chance of developing shingles increases with age.
You might know that the same virus that causes chickenpox, Varicella zoster, is the one that causes shingles. If you’ve had chickenpox, you’ll have a chance of developing shingles at some point. But is it possible to develop shingles if you’ve never had chickenpox? The answer is yes.
If you’ve never had chickenpox, you can still develop it. And chickenpox can lead to shingles. Also, if you’ve been vaccinated with the chickenpox vaccine, it’s possible to develop shingles, since it’s a live vaccine.
Keep reading to learn more about the relationship between chickenpox and shingles, and how to avoid developing shingles.
If you’ve had chickenpox, you’ll have a greater chance of developing shingles. That’s because the virus never leaves your body. After you recover from chickenpox, the virus goes into hibernation and remains dormant inside your body’s nerves. Its location in your nerves prevents your body from eradicating it.
At some point, the virus can reactivate. Instead of causing another itchy bout of chickenpox, however, it causes patches of painful blisters on your skin triggered by your nerve where the virus has reactivated. This reactivation, known as shingles, may also cause other symptoms, including:
If you’ve never had chickenpox, you might just assume you’re safe if you’re exposed to someone with shingles. But that’s not the case. Someone with shingles can transmit the virus to you, and you could develop chickenpox.
If you were already vaccinated for chickenpox, you’d be in the clear. But if you haven’t been vaccinated, you could very well develop a case of chickenpox. (Technically, if you’ve already been vaccinated for chickenpox, it’s still possible for you to develop shingles later on, but it’s much less likely. Research shows that the chickenpox vaccine is
The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) says that it typically takes between 10 and 21 days for you to develop chickenpox after being exposed to chickenpox or shingles.
Since chickenpox is highly contagious, according to the
The people with the greatest chance of developing shingles are people who’ve had chickenpox. Research suggests that
But beyond that, there are some groups of people who have an even greater chance of developing shingles. Older adults have a higher chance of developing the condition, since the chance increases with age.
Older adults are also more likely to develop complications as a result of developing shingles. The most common complication is nerve pain, also known as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN).
And the CDC says that
- brain inflammation
- hearing concerns
People whose immune systems are suppressed also have a high chance of developing shingles. That can include people who take immunosuppressive medications for a variety of medical conditions, but it also includes people:
- with HIV
- with cancer (especially blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma)
- who’ve undergone a bone marrow or organ transplant
If you’re more than 50 years old and you’ve never had chickenpox, you’re pretty unusual. In fact, the CDC estimates that
If you’re 50 or older, you’re eligible to receive the shingles vaccine. And if you’re more than 50 years old, experts like the CDC recommend getting the vaccine even if you don’t think you’ve had chickenpox. The reasoning is that almost everyone in this age cohort has actually either had or been exposed to chickenpox in the past.
The CDC also cautions that shingles can recur, that is, you can develop shingles more than once. But you can get vaccinated even if you’ve already had shingles in the past, which should protect you against future cases.
You’ll need 2 doses of the recombinant zoster vaccine, known as Shingrix, to be fully protected. The
The Shingrix 2-dose vaccine is also recommended for adults who were vaccinated with Zostavax, an older shingles vaccine that’s no longer available in the United States.
If you suspect that you may have chickenpox or shingles, contact your doctor right away.
It can be a little hard to recognize the early signs of an impending case of chickenpox, since they can mimic other illnesses. Symptoms include:
- muscle aches
- loss of appetite
But once sores or lesions start appearing, that should be a clue. If you have active lesions, you can transmit the virus to others. So, you’ll want to stay away from others until those lesions dry out and crust over.
Call a doctor if you suspect you have chickenpox. Depending on your health history, they may start treatment with antivirals or they may recommend that you rest and treat the symptoms.
To relieve itching, try soaking in a cool bath with a few handfuls of oatmeal (or baking soda) mixed in. A topical application of calamine lotion may also help with the itch.
Stay in touch with your doctor, in case you develop a fever that lingers or you have a high chance of experiencing any complications.
Shingles tends to show up as a painful rash on one part of your body, often on one side of your torso but possibly on your face, scalp or neck You might develop some fluid-filled blisters, and you may experience some tingling and numbness. Itching and burning are other common symptoms.
Since you can transmit the virus to anyone who’s never had chickenpox, you’ll also want to avoid coming into contact with vulnerable people. As for dealing with your pain and other symptoms, your doctor may want to prescribe an antiviral medication for you. The options include:
You’ll want to start taking the medication for shingles as soon as possible, so contact your doctor as soon as you start developing symptoms.
The best way to avoid developing shingles is to get vaccinated for shingles. Don’t assume that you’re in the clear if you’ve never had chickenpox.
You may still develop chickenpox from someone with an active case of shingles. And developing chickenpox increases your chance of developing shingles later.