As a child, you probably had the chickenpox—the itchy, red rash that spread all over your skin and likely forced you to stay home from school and other activities. Once the rash faded and you felt better, you probably thought you were done with the virus.
But that’s not the case. After the symptoms of chickenpox subside, the virus remains dormant in your nervous system. If it receives a signal to reactivate, you will get shingles, a painful blistering rash. One in five people who have had chickenpox will develop shingles.
And if you’re over the age of 60, your chances of dealing with shingles rapidly increase thanks to decreasing immunity. In fact, one in three people 60 and older will get shingles. Here is how to protect yourself against shingles and what to do if you get sick.
What is shingles?
Shingles is a common rash that develops after the reactivation of the chickenpox virus—herpes zoster. If you have a period of lowered immunity, the virus can reactivate. It’s important to note that if you’ve had the chickenpox, you can get shingles.
What are the symptoms of shingles?
Like the chickenpox, shingles presents as a painful rash. But instead of appearing all over your skin, the shingles rash will typically appear on one side of your face or body, usually in a stripe.
Early symptoms include burning, shooting pain or tingling and itching on one side of the body. After the pain or itching starts, a rash or blisters will appear anywhere from one to 14 days later. Pain from the virus can last months or years after the rash has cleared.
Is shingles contagious?
You cannot catch shingles from someone who has a rash if you have had the chickenpox. However, if you have an active shingles rash, you can pass the virus on to someone who has not had the chickenpox. The virus is spread through direct contact with the rash, not through the air, and once the rash has scabbed over, it is no longer contagious. If you develop shingles, keep the rash covered to reduce chances of transmission.
How can I protect myself against shingles?
Since the virus is already inside your body, it may seem like little can be done to protect yourself from developing shingles, but there is something you can do. The CDC recommends adults over age 60 get a shingles vaccine.
The vaccine is designed to boost your immune system, reducing the likelihood of developing shingles. And if you do develop the disease, having had the vaccine can shorten its duration and make the symptoms less severe. If you have not had the chickenpox, you should not get the shingles vaccine but instead get the chickenpox vaccine.
What should I do if I develop shingles?
If you think you have shingles, see your doctor within 72 hours of developing a rash. Your doctor may prescribe anti-viral, steroids or pain medications to help. Keep the rash clean and avoid scratching or picking at it.
While you can’t avoid catching the virus that causes shingles—unless you’ve not had the chickenpox—taking steps to stay healthy like getting enough rest, managing stress, eating a healthy diet and getting the shingles vaccine can lessen the chances of experiencing a severe shingles flair.