Shingles occurs when the virus that causes chickenpox starts up again in your body. After you get better from chickenpox, the virus "sleeps" (is dormant) in your nerve roots. In some people, it stays dormant forever. In others, the virus "wakes up" when disease, stress, or aging weakens the immune system. It is not clear why this happens. But after the virus becomes active again, it can only cause shingles, not chickenpox.
You can't catch shingles from someone else who has shingles. But a person with a shingles rash can spread chickenpox to another person who hasn't had chickenpox and who hasn't gotten the chickenpox vaccine. Shingles is a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus, a type of herpes virus that causes chickenpox. After you have had chickenpox, the virus lies inactive in your nerve roots and remains inactive until, in some people, it flares up again. When the virus becomes active again, you get shingles instead of chickenpox.
Anyone who has had even a mild case of chickenpox can get shingles. People who have a weak immune system are vulnerable to reactivation of the virus that causes shingles. Many factors can weaken your immune system, including aging, injury, and illness. Some medicines slow down the immune system. For example, medicines that destroy cancer cells ( chemotherapy) can interfere with the immune system.
Who gets Shingles
Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles. You have a greater chance of getting shingles if you:
- Are older than 50.
- Have an autoimmune disease that causes your immune system to attack your body’s own tissues.
- Have another health problem or stress that weakens the immune system.
If you have never had chickenpox and have not gotten the chickenpox vaccine, avoid touching someone who has shingles or chickenpox. If you are at least 60 years old, you can get a vaccine that may prevent shingles or make it less painful if you do get it.
Exposure to shingles will not cause you to get shingles. But if you have not had chickenpox and have not gotten the chickenpox vaccine, you can get chickenpox if you are exposed to shingles. Someone with shingles can expose you to chickenpox if you come into contact with the fluid in the shingles blisters. If you cover the shingles sores with a type of dressing that absorbs fluid and protects the sores, you can help prevent the spread of the virus to other people.
There is no cure for shingles, but treatment may help you get well sooner and prevent other problems. Call your doctor as soon as you think you may have shingles. The sooner you start treatment, the better it works. Treatment may include:
- Antiviral medicines to help you get well sooner and feel less pain. Medicines to help long-term pain. These include antidepressants, pain medicines, and skin creams.
- Good home care can help you feel better faster. Take care of any skin sores, and keep them clean.
- Take your medicines as directed. And use over-the-counter pain medicines to relieve pain.
Avoid contact with people until the rash heals. While you have shingles, you can spread chickenpox to people who have never had chickenpox and who haven't gotten the chickenpox vaccine. Be extra careful to avoid people with weak immune systems and pregnant women and babies who have never had chickenpox and have never gotten the vaccine