Regardless of whether you’ve had chickenpox or not, you may be at risk for developing shingles.
Before the chickenpox vaccine was approved for use in the United States in 1995, nearly all of us could expect to contract this childhood disease. In fact, many mothers would – and still do -- expose their children to chickenpox purposefully through “pox parties” so they will develop a natural immunity. While most of us survived this disease without complications, there were nearly 11,000 hospitalizations each year and 100 chickenpox-related deaths prior to the vaccine. Today, the chickenpox mortality rate is approximately 15 deaths each year.
Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. Once it enters your body, it’s there for life. In fact, if you’ve had chickenpox, it’s now in the nerve cells under your skin, hiding near your spine. For most individuals, the chickenpox attack is their only experience of the varicella-zoster virus. For about 25 percent of us, however, this virus will emerge again as shingles.
The bad news is that shingles is much more painful than chickenpox. Unlike chickenpox – which can last up to 10 days – shingles can last for a few weeks. In fact, most people will endure a shingles attack for three to five weeks. For some, however, the pain can last for months, even years. This is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), a form of neuropath pain. Again, unlike chickenpox, the pain of shingles can be excruciating and feels like a stabbing, burning, or electrical pain.
Although there is no cure for shingles, antiviral medications have proven effective for decreasing the pain and duration of this condition. Additionally, topical creams, pain medications (acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen), and antidepressants can go a long way to reduce pain.
Here are five facts you need to know about shingles, regardless of whether you’ve been exposed to chickenpox or not.
- As long as it is in the blister phase, shingles is contagious to individuals who have not had chickenpox. Avoid direct contact with anyone who has an active shingles infection if you have never had chickenpox.
- The risk for developing shingles increases with age. Individuals who are 50 or older are most at risk. Individuals over 60 are 10 times more likely to develop shingles than children under the age of 10.
- Individuals with weakened immune systems are more at risk for developing shingles. The virus can be triggered by stress or illness.
- In rare cases, shingles causes brain inflammation, pneumonia, blindness, hearing loss, or death.
- Zostavax – also known as ZVZ – is a vaccine available to prevent shingles in individuals 60 and older.
If you believe that you have shingles, you’ll want to schedule an appointment with your medical healthcare provider immediately to seek treatment and to lessen the pain.