Shingles is a painful infection caused by the same virus responsible for the chicken pox (varicella-zoster); people who had chicken pox as a child may come down with shingles as an adult, since the virus remains dormant in the nerves for many years.
After you’ve recovered from chicken pox, the virus remains in the body, near the brain and spinal cord. For some people, it never becomes active again, but for others it rears its head years later; it’s not always clear why, but it appears to be connected to people with compromised immune systems — those who are under stress or who suffer from chronic illness are at a higher risk, as are older adults, whose immune systems are naturally weaker due to aging.
Shingles is not nearly as contagious as chicken pox is: you can’t catch it by being exposed to someone who has it. However, someone who has never had the chicken pox and isn’t properly vaccinated has a small chance of contracting it if they come in direct contact with the rash; it can’t be spread in the air, so mere proximity is not a big risk.
Shingles isn’t life-threatening, but if left untreated it can cause complications such as nerve damage, as well as being painful and uncomfortable. The area of infection is important too: shingles on or around the face can cause eyesight and hearing loss, so see a doctor right away if this applies to you.
The pain of shingles affects everyone differently. Depending on factors like age, overall health, and underlying conditions, it may range from mild to severe. It begins with a shooting or burning pain, or a tingling sensation followed a few days later by a tender, red rash; blisters develop, filled with fluid that may burst and crust over. You may also have symptoms like dizziness, fatigue, fever, or headache.
The rash and blisters usually heal in 2 to 4 weeks with treatment, but the pain may last for a longer or shorter period. Vaccines can be very helpful in preventing shingles, or in lessening its symptoms. People over the age of 60, and in some cases as young as 50, should talk to their doctor about getting vaccinated.