Are You at Risk for Shingles?

May 7th 2016

While approximately 25 percent of all adults experience an episode of shingles within their lifetimes, reactivation of the varicella zoster virus can often be prevented, and the severity of symptoms can be lessened, with vaccines and antiviral medications. Understanding the risk factors, causes and symptoms of shingles can help to ensure that individuals take the appropriate steps to remain healthy and lower their risk of infection.

Shingles Transmission

Shingles doesn't spread to individuals who have had active chickenpox infections in the past. However, the virus can transfer to those who have never been infected with the varicella zoster virus. If transmission does occur, and an individual with no past exposure becomes infected, that person develops chickenpox symptoms, not shingles symptoms.

Shingles transmission can only occur when an infected individual with open, weeping blisters — the "active" phase — comes into direct contact with a noninfected person. The virus doesn't spread if the blisters have crusted over or if blisters are not present. Individuals with active infections can minimize the risk of infecting others by covering the blisters during the active phase.

Risk Factors for Shingles

In addition to those who have never had the chickenpox virus, anyone who has had chickenpox in the past risks developing shingles. The risk for reactivation of the varicella zoster virus is higher in individuals who are over 50 years of age, pregnant women and individuals with medical conditions that weaken natural immunity. The virus can also reactivate during periods of high stress.

Individuals with cancer and those who are undergoing cancer treatments may be at risk of developing shingles as well, as both the cancer and the treatment itself can hinder immune function. Organ transplants and steroid medications can also increase the risk of reactivation.

Prevention and Treatment of Shingles

While shingles infections can develop in anyone with previous chickenpox viruses, there are preventative measures that help lower the risk of infection. The Zostavax vaccine, also referred to as VSV, can help prevent shingles infections from occurring in individuals aged 60 or older.

Taking steps to reduce stress and maintaining a healthy immune system may also help to minimize the risk of reactivation. Individuals who have never had chickenpox can also lower their risk of infection by obtaining the chickenpox vaccine. When shingles infections do develop, antiviral medications such as Zovirax and Valtrex can help to shorten the duration of the illness and reduce the severity of symptoms if taken shortly after shingles rashes appear.

People at risk of developing shingles should check with a medical professional for advice on vaccinations and treatments.

Conclusion

Shingles is a viral skin infection caused by the chickenpox virus, also referred to as the varicella zoster virus. The infection causes painful, itching blisters that typically present on one side of the body. Symptoms of shingles develop in individuals who have had chickenpox in the past, as the varicella zoster virus lays dormant and can resurface in response to stress and illness. While there is no way to predict whether a shingles outbreak will occur, there are preventative measures at-risk people can take to minimize their chances of infection.

Sources

MayoClinic.org "Shingles" http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/shingles/basics/definition/con-20019574
WebMD.com "Risk Factors for Shingles" http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/shingles/shingles-what-increases-your-risk
CDC.gov "Shingles: Transmission" http://www.cdc.gov/shingles/about/transmission.html
Nlm.nih.gov "Protecting yourself from shingles" http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/magazine/issues/winter10/articles/winter10pg16-17.html

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