Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a common viral infection. It causes a large, painful rash with blisters. The rash usually appears on one side of the body. It commonly forms on the torso or face, often near the eye.
You’re at risk for shingles if you’ve ever had chickenpox. That’s because the varicella-zoster virus, which causes chickenpox, is also responsible for shingles. The virus remains dormant inside your body after having chickenpox. In some people, the virus reactivates later in life, leading to shingles. This can happen many years, or even decades after having chickenpox.
Shingles can occur in people of any age, but it usually affects older adults. About 1 in 3 people in the United States gets shingles at some point during their lifetime.
It isn’t clear why the varicella-zoster virus reactivates in some people and not others. People often think of stress as a trigger for shingles, but some new research has looked at this link further. Keep reading to learn more about this connection.
Stress and shingles
Most people will feel stress at some point in their life. Catastrophic events, such as the death of a spouse or loss of a job can increase stress levels significantly. This may have an impact on overall health, feelings of depression, and the immune system.
Some researchers think that a weakened immune system can reactivate the varicella-zoster virus. Since stress affects the immune system, many researchers believe that stress could be a trigger for shingles.
Researchers in multiple studies have linked chronic, daily stress, and highly stressful life events as risk factors for shingles. Some studies indicate that stress might be a risk factor if other factors are present, such as advancing age, mood disorders, and poor diet. These might also negatively affect the immune system.
Researchers in a recent study have reexamined the relationship between stress and shingles. This study examined data from over 39,000 people experiencing stressful events in their lives, including death or decline in health of their spouses. Researchers didn’t find a connection between stress and shingles.
Effects of stress on your body
Scientists differ in their opinions on the relationship between stress and shingles, but most people agree that stress has an effect on the body. Researchers have linked stress, particularly when severe or long-term, to a wide range of issues, including:
- gastrointestinal issues
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
- difficulty sleeping
- chest pain
- changes in sex drive
- changes in mood, including increasing feelings of anger, sadness, or anxiety
- overeating or undereating
- substance abuse
Shingles triggers and risk factors
The main risk factor for getting shingles is having had chickenpox, although people who have gotten the chickenpox vaccine may still be at risk.
Another risk factor is age. Children, teenagers, and young adults can get shingles, but most people who have outbreaks, are over 50 years old.
A weakened immune system may also trigger shingles. Good nutrition and getting enough sleep are important because they may help keep your immune system strong.
Some medical conditions and their treatments can adversely affect the immune system, making you more susceptible to shingles. They include:
- immunotherapy treatment for people who’ve had organ transplants
- cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation
What are the symptoms of shingles?
Shingles often starts with a burning, tingling, or painful sensation along one side of the torso or head. Within one to five days, a rash will appear. Within a few days, the rash will turn into fluid-filled blisters. The blisters will start to dry up about a week later, and will begin to disappear over the next several weeks. Some people only experience mild itching, but others have intense pain.
If you think you may have shingles, see your doctor as soon as possible, especially if you see blisters on your face or near your eye. Shingles can cause hearing or vision loss, especially if you don’t get treatment for it.
No matter where your rash appears, you should seek medical treatment quickly. Your doctor can make a diagnosis and prescribe treatments to help the blisters dry up and heal. This can reduce the duration of the outbreak and your discomfort.
How is shingles treated?
No cure is available for shingles, but most people who have an outbreak get it only once.
Doing the following at home may help you to feel more comfortable:
- Get lots of rest.
- Use cool washcloths on your rash.
- Take oatmeal baths.
- Keep your stress to a minimum.
You should keep the rash covered and wash your hands often to reduce the risk of spreading the infection. Shingles isn’t contagious, but you can give someone chickenpox while you have it.
Shingles may last from two to six weeks. Sometimes, the pain associated with shingles may linger. This ongoing pain is called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN usually becomes less severe over time. Your doctor will be able to prescribe pain reduction medications that can also help.
Studies on the link between shingles and stress seem to contradict each other. This isn’t unusual, but it can make it difficult to figure out what it all means. Talk to your doctor about getting the shingles vaccine. Finding ways to reduce stress and anxiety may also be beneficial.
What can you do to avoid stress?
Reducing or eliminating stress from your life may not guarantee that you won’t get shingles, but it will make you healthier. Experimenting with different techniques for stress can help you find what works for you. Try these techniques to reduce stress:
- Identify and avoid the things that trigger your stress. Consider keeping a journal of your moods and possible triggers.
- Wind down before sleep. Reading a book, turning off the computer, and creating a bedtime routine may help.
- Turn mealtimes into social rituals with people you like, complete with conversation, soft music, and healthy, well-prepared food.
- Spend time with your pet or someone else’s pet if you like animals.
- Turn off your phone.
- Spend time in nature or taking quiet walks in peaceful surroundings.
- Practice meditation.
- Try yoga.
- Join a support group.
- Practice deep breathing exercises.
You can also add regular exercise into your daily routine. Walking, riding a bicycle, or going for a hike are examples of exercises that you may be able to incorporate into your routine