If you’re like 95% of American adults, you had chickenpox as a child. Before the United States began its massive vaccination program in 1995, there were approximately four million cases of chickenpox each year. So, most of the people have suffered from infection with this highly contagious virus and its itchy rashes all over the body.
But unlike many childhood viruses, the varicella zoster virus that causes chickenpox does not go away from the body when the disease ends. Instead, it hangs out, settling and sleeping in nerves, sometimes for decades, with the immune system controlling it. In some people, it lives there safely for the rest of their lives. But in others, the virus can suddenly emerge and strike again, this time showing up as a different condition known as shingles.
What are the symptoms of shingles?
Like chickenpox, shingles also causes a rash, but this time it usually shows up as a painful band around one side of your rib cage or one side of your face. The first symptom for many people is pain or a burning sensation in the affected area. You may also have a fever, headache, and fatigue. Besides the rash and other temporary symptoms, shingles can also lead to unpleasant, long-lasting and sometimes permanent complications, such as skin infections, nerve pain in the area where the rash first appeared, or even loss of vision. .
What causes shingles in some people and not in others?
Experts don’t quite understand this. One theory is that shingles occurs when your immune system loses its ability to control the virus.
After you contract chickenpox, your immune system is able to recognize the varicella-zoster virus by specialized cells in the immune system, called B and T cells, which can remember the virus and quickly trigger an attack against it. Factors that weaken the immune system increase your risk of developing shingles. These included
- certain diseases, such as HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), cancer, or autoimmune diseases.
- Medicines that suppress your immune system, such as cancer medicines, steroids, medicines to treat autoimmune diseases, and medicines given to patients who have an organ transplant to prevent their body from rejecting it.
- age-related changes: Shingles can occur in people of any age, including children, but it is more common in people over 60. Your immune system may weaken as you get older. While it’s not entirely clear why this happens, it may be due to a decline in T cells. Some experts also believe that as we age, the bone marrow produces fewer stem cells, the progenitors of T cells. and B cells. With fewer of these white blood cell soldiers in the military, the immune system might not be able to respond as powerfully to invaders as before.
- certain genetic factors: Previous studies have indicated that increased susceptibility to shingles may run in families, according to the National Institutes of Health.
What can you do to prevent shingles?
Although there are some factors that can trigger shingles that you cannot control, there are some strategies you can use to prevent shingles. The most important is vaccination. Research shows that the Shingrix shingles vaccine is 90% effective in preventing a shingles outbreak. Even if you get shingles after being vaccinated, Shingrix greatly reduces your risk of developing persistent pain in the affected area, known as postherpetic neuralgia.
In addition to getting the vaccine, it’s always a good idea to take steps to keep your body healthy, such as choosing healthy foods, staying active, and getting enough sleep. It is not known if healthy habits like these can prevent shingles, but even if they don’t, they are worth the effort because they will benefit your body in so many other ways.
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