No, Shingles Isn't an Old Person's Disease — Here's What You Need to Know

Jul 21, 2018 at 10:00 a.m. ET
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Image: Martin Dimitrov/Getty Images. Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows.

For a long time, I thought getting shingles was something that could only happen to you once you reached the age of 60 or older. But after a friend of mine had it in his 30s and was in quite a bit of pain, I realized it's not a virus only older people can get. 

We spoke with doctors about the shingles virus and this is what you need to know about the virus, how to protect yourself and who can get it.

What is shingles?

Shingles is a painful rash caused by a viral infection according to Mayo Clinic. And yes, there is a connection between chicken pox and shingles. You can get shingles if you've been infected with the chicken pox virus, also known as varicella zoster virus, or VZV, Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, physician and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells SheKnows, adding that as you age, the virus will "reactivate and will manifest itself as shingles."

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If you've had the chicken pox, the shingles virus lives within you and will for the rest of your life, even if you only had a few chicken pox as a child.

What are the first signs?

The first sign of shingles is typically pain in your skin. "It will be restricted to one half of your body (left or right)," says Adalja, then will be followed by a blistering rash. As soon as the rash is visible or the pain you are having pre-rash is so bad it interferes with daily life, he says you should see a doctor right away. 

Who can get it?

If you think of shingles as exclusively an illness of the elderly, think again. According to Adalja, anyone in their 20s and older can get shingles, although the likelihood of getting it does increase as we age because our immune system becomes less robust.

How do we contract shingles?

Besides having had chicken pox earlier in life, shingles can come on for a variety of reasons. For instance, if you've had a recent organ transplant, an autoimmune condition or cancer, you may be taking immunosuppressant medication, which can cause your body to be unable to fight shingles. Another factor is stress. "Psychosocial stressors can lead to alterations in immunity, allowing shingles to occur," Adalja explains.

Maggie Berghoff, a licensed nurse practitioner and functional medicine clinician who has treated college-age patients for shingles, tells SheKnows it’s typically caused by “a crashed immune system from lack of sleep, vitamin and mineral deficiencies or stress."

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Vaccinations

You've probably seen the ads for the shingles vaccine on TV, but when should you get it? Adalja recommends that people over the age of 50 get the vaccination and says that it's highly effective and works by boosting the immunity one possesses against the virus.

"It's important if you do get shingles to know that the imbalances and damages being done inside the body," Berghoff adds. These imbalances can be resolved by working with a functional medicine practitioner, which will help prevent future outbreaks.

Is shingles contagious?

If you get the shingles virus, you should stay away from those who have not had their chicken pox vaccination as well as people who have never had the chicken pox, because while you can’t spread shingles, the virus can cause an outbreak of chicken pox.

If you are having pain on one side of your body and a blistering rash, it’s important to realize it could be shingles and not ignore the symptoms no matter how old you are — this is not a virus that only affects people over a certain age, and it’s important to know how to protect yourself.

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