Dr. Stanley Martin, director of Geisinger’s Division of Infectious Diseases
Shingles can happen to anyone. Here are some common misconceptions about this illness.
Despite what you’ve heard, shingles isn’t just a disease that affects older people. Anyone who’s had chickenpox can get shingles, and it can be a serious illness. But even if you don’t remember having chickenpox (you may not have had “true chickenpox,” or you had the live chickenpox vaccine), developing shingles is still a possibility. Shingles is a skin rash caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. The rash can occur anywhere on the body, but it’s usually concentrated around the chest, back or abdomen. The rash can last for weeks or even months, and the pain of the condition can last even longer.
The symptoms of shingles can vary from person to person, but the most common symptom is pain. Other symptoms may include:
Tingling, itching, or burning before the rash appears
The rash usually lasts for two to four weeks and can leave permanent scars. In some cases, shingles can also lead to complications such as pneumonia, hearing problems and blindness.
Myth 1: Only seniors get shingles
Anyone who’s had chickenpox — or even the live chickenpox vaccine as a child — can develop shingles, regardless of their age. It is a common misconception that only seniors get shingles, but it’s simply untrue. While the risk of developing shingles increases with age, younger people aren’t immune to the condition. In fact, there’s been an increase in the number of young adults diagnosed with shingles in recent years. A weakened immune system increases the risk for shingles exponentially, and stress itself can be a factor, but most cases of shingles happen when people don’t have any underlying defect in their immune system. In other words, this can happen to healthy people, but risk goes up in settings of older age, stress and weakened immune systems.
Myth 2: Shingles is not contagious
While it is true that shingles can’t be passed from person to person, the virus that causes it can be passed to someone who has never had chickenpox. The varicella zoster virus can be passed through direct contact with the rash or through contact with the fluid from the blisters. If this happens, they will develop chickenpox, not shingles. It’s important to know that even if a person has had chickenpox, they can still develop shingles later in life. Chickenpox is highly contagious, and adults who have chickenpox later in life have a greater risk for complications, such as pneumonia.
Myth 3: Shingles is rare
Shingles is not a rare condition — about one in three adults will get shingles in their lifetime. Anyone who’s had chickenpox can develop the condition. The varicella zoster virus, which causes both chickenpox and shingles, can lie dormant in the body for years before reactivating and causing a painful rash. If you’ve had chickenpox but haven’t had shingles, getting a shingles vaccine can help prevent the virus from reactivating. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the shingles vaccine for healthy adults age 50 and older.
Myth 4: You can’t get shingles more than once
Most people will only have shingles once in their lifetime. However, it’s possible to have it multiple times. Several factors can contribute to the reactivation of the virus, including stress, illness and certain medications. For those with weakened immune systems, getting the shingles vaccine can help prevent another outbreak if you’ve already had the condition.
Myth 5: Shingles isn’t dangerous
Shingles can be a painful and debilitating condition, especially for older adults.
While it’s true that most people who develop shingles will recover within a few weeks or months, some serious complications can occur. These include postherpetic neuralgia, which is a persistent pain that can last for months or even years, and vision loss. In rare cases, shingles can also lead to pneumonia, brain inflammation, hearing problems or death. That’s why it’s important to seek medical care if you think you’re at risk for developing serious complications from shingles. Treatment with antiviral medications at the onset of symptoms can help decrease the length and severity of shingles and prevent other complications