Dealing with Shingles - And Not Those On Your Roof

Sometimes events from our past come back to haunt us, and shingles is one example. Shingles is a condition that occurs when the chickenpox virus (Varicella zoster virus), which lies dormant in the nerve roots of people who had the itchy disease in their younger days, decides to make a return visit. And I’m not talking about the shingles on your roof!

What is shingles?

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is a condition that occurs when the dormant virus decides to become active again years or usually decades after an initial chickenpox infection. The first indication that shingles may be on the horizon can be a headache or flu-like symptoms without a fever. Some people become hypersensitive to light.

Read more about chickenpox

The hallmark symptoms of shingles usually appear a few days later: tingling, pain, or itching that involves the affected nerves, which can be anywhere on the body. These symptoms then progress to a rash that can develop in a single stripe on either side of the body (shingles nearly always affects only one side) or on the face. In rare cases, the rash can spread to more of the body.

The rash then turns into blisters that eventually dry up over a two to four week period. A small percentage of people with shingles experience only a mild rash or even none at all. Some, however, feel dizzy or weak along with the rash or they experience changes to their vision or ability to think. These symptoms should be reported to your doctor immediately.

Who gets shingles and why?

Nearly one third of people in the United States can expect to develop shingles during their lifetime. Who is most likely to get the condition? Basically, anyone who has had chickenpox is a candidate. Although it is widely believed that only older adults get shingles, children, adolescents, and young adults can get it, too (see “Shingles in young adults” below). However, the majority of cases occur in people age 60 and older.

A variety of factors may be responsible for “waking up” the sleeping virus, such as stress, aging, weakening of the immune system due to illness (e.g., HIV, some cancers), and use of some medications, such as steroids and immunosuppressive drugs.

The good news is that most people who get shingles experience it only once. Occasionally, however, individuals get it a second or even a third time.

Shingles in young adults

When shingles occurs in people younger than 40, other health concerns may be on the table. According to a new study (July 2014) in the journal Neurology, young adults who experience shingles have a 74 percent increased risk of stroke when compared with their peers who have not had shingles. In addition, shingles at a younger age is associated with a 2.4 times higher risk of transient ischemic attack (TIA; mini stroke) and a 50 percent increased risk of heart attack.

The same study also found that people older than 40 who had had shingles did not have the greater risk of stroke, although they did have a slightly higher risk of heart attack and TIAs. According to the study’s authors, the reason for these higher risks is inflammation: shingles can cause certain blood vessels to be inflamed, and people who are already at risk for these cardiovascular issues would then have an increased chance of experiencing them.

Preventing and treating shingles

The conventional approach to treating shingles involves antiviral medication, which should be started as soon as the rash appears to be most effective. Antiviral drugs used to treat shingles include acyclovir, famiciclovir, and valacyclovir. Some people with shingles need pain medication, which can include acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Traditional Chinese medicine approaches, such as acupuncture, is another option.

The itching may be managed with colloidal oatmeal baths, calamine lotion, and cool, wet compresses. Several other treatment options, offered by Dr. Julian Whitaker, include

  • Intravenous vitamin C
  • 1,000 to 2,000 micrograms of vitamin B12 daily as soon as symptoms appear
  • 1,500 to 3,000 milligrams of the amino acid, L-lysine, as soon as symptoms occur

To help prevent shingles, you can be given a vaccine called Zostavax. The shingles vaccine is recommended for people age 60 years and older by the CDC. It can be administered to anyone who has already had shingles as well to help prevent a recurrence. Although Zostavax can be given to anyone age 50 to 59, no specific recommendations have been established for this age group. Zostavax can also help reduce the risk of post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), the most common complication of shingles. It’s been estimated that 9 to 34 percent of people who have shingles will eventually develop PHN. People with PHN experience severe pain where the shingles rash occurred, even after the rash has disappeared.

According to the CDC, a clinical trial using Zostavax showed that among adults age 60 and older, the vaccine reduced the risk of shingles by 51 percent and the risk of post-herpetic neuralgia by 67 percent. The vaccine is reportedly effective for at least six years.

Read more about boosting the immune system

The bottom line

The chickenpox vaccine (varicella) was first introduced to the US market in 1995. This means there is a huge population of people who have chickenpox and thus are at risk of someday getting shingles. For now, there is not much you can do to prevent getting shingles (unless you are old enough and choose to get the vaccine) except maintaining a healthy lifestyle and managing stress effectively. That is a prescription that can prevent a multitude of ills!

Image: David Boldery

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

By Deborah Mitchell| August 27, 2014
Categories:  Care

About the Author

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently she lives in Tucson, Arizona. Visit her at

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