Herpes zoster, or shingles, is a disease caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. If you had chickenpox earlier in life, the herpes virus that caused it remains present in your body. In some instances, it reactivates later in life, and shingles is the result. Shingles can occur in individuals at any age, but it seems to be most common in 60- to 80-year-olds.
In individuals who have already had chickenpox, shingles is not contagious. But if a person has not had chickenpox, he or she should avoid exposure to a person with an active shingles infection. The fluid from the shingles sores can cause chickenpox if a person has not previously had the disease.
Symptoms of Shingles
A shingles outbreak shares some similarities with chickenpox, but also exhibits some differences. For example, the blisters often look like those of chickenpox, but they only affect one side of the body, and often just a few specific locations on that side of the body, such as the trunk around the waistline. Shingles is also characterized by itchiness and pain.
In most cases, shingles will resolve on its own in a matter of weeks. But it poses the risk of complications to some, including those with a suppressed immune system. The most common complication is lingering chronic pain related to the shingles. This is known as postherpetic neuralgia. It can also lead to scarring, or vision problems if it occurs on the face or near the eyes.
Recently, a shingles vaccine was developed for older adults who already have had chickenpox. This has proven effective at preventing shingles or reducing its severity, and it’s recommended for many individuals. In the case of an active shingles infection, it’s worth seeing a doctor. There are several available anti-viral medications that can reduce the severity and the duration of the disease when it does occur.
SOURCES: National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Aging; National Institutes of Health: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
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