Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. The varicella-zoster virus causes the condition. Unlike other viruses, the shingles virus can remain dormant for decades with no symptoms. Although shingles is not life-threatening, its effects can be painful. One of the first signs is a burning, itching or tingling sensation where the rash will form. You may also experience headache, nausea, fever, and sensitivity to touch. Ultimately, a red rash will appear. The fluid-filled blisters will scab over and begin to heal. There are many different causes of shingles — conditions or symptoms that encourage the virus to reemerge.
Previous Occurrence of Chicken Pox
The same virus that causes chickenpox also causes shingles. If you’ve ever had chickenpox, even as a child, then you have the shingles virus already in your body. The shingles virus will remain dormant in nerve tissue until something causes it to reactivate. The virus is considered opportunistic in that it strikes when your immune system is weakened.
Exposure to Shingles
Shingles is a communicable disease which means you can catch it from someone who’s actively affected by the virus. You can be exposed to the virus and not show any signs, and also may not develop shingles after exposure. You may develop chickenpox initially and develop shingles later. Shingles is transmitted through the oozing and open sores. A person with shingles remains contagious until all the sores have crusted over.
Although some younger people can contract shingles, older populations are primarily affected. People 50 and older are at the highest risk for developing the rash. The older you are, the higher the risk for developing shingles. Researchers don’t fully understand why risk increases with age. One theory is that one’s immune system naturally weakens with age, which raises susceptibility.
Radiation or Chemotherapy Treatment
Individuals who have cancer and are being treated with chemotherapy or radiation are at an increased risk of developing shingles. Such treatments not only kill cancer cells, but they also kill healthy cells. This lowers resistance to bacterial or viral infections. These individuals should stay away from anyone who has chickenpox or shingles.
Diseases that Affect the Immune System
Many diseases compromise the immune system. Individuals with HIV, AIDS, or cancer — conditions that already weaken the immune system — have a much greater risk of developing shingles. While the shingles virus can stay dormant for years, it is likely to take advantage of a time when the immune system is lowered for other reasons.
Medications that Suppress the Immune System
Drugs that suppress the immune system can reactivate the shingles virus. Medications used to counteract autoimmune disorders also put the patient at greater risk for developing the painful rash. Likewise, drugs that prevent rejection of a transplanted organ can increase the change of developing shingles.
A study by the Mayo Clinic concluded over 70 percent of those with asthma will develop shingles. Researchers believe over time, asthma weakens the immune system, making it easier for the shingles virus to reactivate. Individuals with asthma are encouraged to get the shingles vaccine to prevent the virus from reactivating.
People with family members who’ve had shingles are at increased risk for developing this painful rash. One study shows only 10 percent of individuals without a family history of shingles develop the rash.
Stress itself can have negative consequences for the immune system, and furthermore, people who are dealing with psychological or emotional stress often don’t maintain a healthy diet or take care of themselves. The longer a stressful situation persists, the more drained a person becomes and the less likely they are to be able to fight the shingles virus, should it reactivate during this time.
Chronic Medical Conditions
Chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, can increase the chances of having a shingles outbreak. Individuals who have a chronic illness have ongoing health problems that can make them vulnerable, giving the opportunistic shingles a chance to strike. Even a strong, healthy person can contract shingles at any time. So, it is even more important for those with chronic medical conditions to be extra vigilant in avoiding all other risk factors for shingles.