Shingles is a painful skin virus that emerges after someone has chickenpox, following a reactivation of the virus called “varicella zoster” (VZV) that has been dormant for some time. Unlike chickenpox, which is known to be very itchy and uncomfortable, shingles symptoms are usually more painful since shingles affects nerves in the skin and can cause various flu-like symptoms that last for weeks.
Shingles is actually very common, especially among older adults, and you’re likely more susceptible than you might think. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost one out of three people in the U.S. will develop shingles at some point. (1)
It’s estimated that more than 90 percent of adults in the U.S. carry VZV and are therefore at risk for the development of shingles. (2) As you get older, your risk goes up, since studies show that most people (over half) who develop shingles are over the age of 60. This is why adults 60 or older are often advised to get vaccinated against the shingles virus — although as you’ll learn, this isn’t always necessary and shingles natural treatment approaches (like using antiviral herbs) can also be effective for prevention.
Although shingles (also sometimes called herpes zoster) is caused by carrying a virus, certain risk factors make people more susceptible to its effects. Having the virus alone doesn’t guarantee that shingles will develop, and even if it does, certain preventative measures can help keep it from returning once it’s cleared up.
What are some of the most common risk factors for developing shingles symptoms? These include older age, having a weak immune system or poor gut health, a history of a disease that affects the immune system, being under a lot of stress, and taking certain prescriptions, among others.
Common Shingles Symptoms
The CDC states that many people describe the intense pain from shingles as being “excruciating, aching, burning, stabbing, and shock-like … It has been compared to the pain of childbirth or kidney stones.”
The virus commonly causes shingles symptoms, including: (3)
- a painful rash that appears as blisters spread throughout the body (including the chest, stomach, face, back and limbs)
- sometimes a stripe of blisters concentrated in one area forms, especially over the trunk abdomen or chest — blisters tend to appear in lines that run from the middle of the body expanding outward to one side
- a good indication of shingles is that it forms on only one side of the body, but not both, since the virus travels along nerve roots that are located in the skin on either the right or left side
- tingling sensations or “pins and needles”
- scabs and redness
- ulcers or small blisters that burn
- pain on parts of the skin that lasts even once the rash clears up (called postherpetic neuralgia)
- fatigue, pains, aches and symptoms similar to a fever
- changes in appetite or weight
- vision-related problems when the blisters appear near the eyes
Can you get shingles more than once? The vast majority of people only get shingles one time in their lives and never again, since the immune system develops resistance against the virus as it heals. That being said, a small percentage (less than 10 percent) experience shingles two to three times.
The Stages Of Shingles
Shingles actually develops in stages, so it might take longer than most illnesses to progress to the point that it’s noticeable. The hallmark shingles symptoms that appear on the skin can take anywhere from several days to a couple of weeks to fully show up.
Prior to the rash emerging on the skin (the period called the “prodomal stage”), many people begin to feel shingles symptoms come on slowly over the course of two to three days as the shingles virus travels through the nerves, affecting one localized area of the body where nerves from the spinal cord connect with the skin.
In the prodromal stage, various symptoms can start to emerge slowly that resemble other illnesses, making a diagnosis hard at first. For example, some of the early shingles symptoms include feeling fatigued, having headaches, experiencing body aches and swollen lymph nodes, or becoming more sensitive to light. It’s easy to mistake these shingles symptoms for the flu, a stomach virus, a cold or even normal hormonal fluctuations.
Most people first notice shingles when they feel itching and burning on their skin, followed by signs of a rash, including redness and bumps that develop on only one side of the body (such as the left side of the back, in one eye or on one arm). The blisters associated with shingles can look similar to those caused by herpes simplex virus, although the two viruses are different.
If you notice a rash but aren’t sure if it’s shingles or something else, the fact that shingles develops on either the left or right side of the body, but not both, is a good indicator that the rash is not due to another illness. This one-sided trait makes shingles different than most rashes caused by things like bug bites, food reactions or beauty product allergies.
How Long Do Shingles Symptoms Last?
Once the shingles rash worsens and causes visible blisters (called the “active stage”), it should clear up over the course of several weeks as the blisters begin to scab over and heal. During the scabbing process, the blisters might appear cloudy and inflamed, since they usually become filled with fluid. It’s possible for shingles blisters to open up and ooze out liquid in the process of healing and leave behind scars.
Wondering if there are long-term effects once you’ve had shingles?
Unfortunately even after the rash clears up after about two to four weeks, pain might still be experienced for up to several more weeks as the nerves recalibrate and recover from the virus. This is called “postherpetic neuralgia” (PHN) and is considered to be the most common complication of shingles. The rate of PHN is almost 30 percent higher in people older than age 50 compared with younger individuals. (4)
PHN causes strong skin sensitivity, especially when being touched, tingling and burning that can persist in some extreme cases for years. However, usually after about four weeks most people are symptom-free.
This potential for long-term pain causes a lot of fear over developing or spreading the virus and unfortunately can increase the odds for symptoms of pain-related depression, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite and weight loss. One of the biggest struggles when it comes to handling shingles symptoms is that the lingering pain can interfere with normal activities, including eating, showering, working, walking and even seeing clearly. When pain does persist after the rash clears, it usually affects the forehead and chest.
Singles Risk Factors
Shingles occurs when the virus that causes chickenpox starts up again in the body after it’s been dormant and undetectable. After a child or adult has chickenpox, that person immediately become a carrier. This means that person won’t experience chickenpox again but will carry a dormant version of the virus that hides out on nerve roots within the body or on the non-neuronal satellite cells located in the cranial nerve, dorsal nerve and autonomic ganglia. (5)
A dormant virus basically goes unnoticed for some time (potentially even forever) and doesn’t cause symptoms, yet it can stay active on some level for many years. Certain factors that compromise immunity can cause the virus to act up and become noticeable once again — in the case of shingles causing a skin rash.
The reactivation of the dormant varicella zoster virus depends a lot on how strong someone’s immune system is. The more impaired immunity becomes (which often happens as someone becomes older), the likelier people are to develop shingles if they carry the virus.
What sorts of things can cause low immunity and trigger shingles?
The most common risk factors for shingles symptoms include:
- older age, especially being over 60. Children and young adults can also get shingles, but it’s usually less severe in younger people and causes less pain and complications.
- shingles is more common in women than in men (especially among the elderly) for reasons not totally understood
- having a history of a disease that affects the immune system, including neoplastic disorders, cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, an autoimmune disorder, HIV or herpes simplex virus. (6) Having received an organ transplant also increases the risk
- taking drugs that affect the immune system (immunodeficiency drugs, including corticosteroids)
- having a family history of shingles. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Clinical Virology found that a stronger association between herpes zoster risk and family history of herpes zoster exists. (7) The same study also found that among 1,103 patients with shingles, the mean age for developing the virus was 51.7 years and patients had about a 9 percent chance of shingles occurrence
- being Caucasian (studies have found that up to twice as many Caucasians than non-Caucasians develop the virus) (8)
- rates of shingles during pregnancy is low but can cause complications when it develops. Low birth weights or premature births have been linked to shingles during pregnancy
Having experienced injuries or nerve damage also seems to raise the risk for shingles, since within the nerves is where the virus lays dormant. Some research suggests that traumatic stimulation of the nerves in the dorsal root ganglion can trigger the virus to reactive. Some people also seem to be genetically predisposed to the development of herpes zoster to some extent, with research showing that changes in the gene for interleukin-10 (an immune-system mediator) are associated with an increased incidence of herpes zoster, as is a family history of the virus.
Finally, the impact of high amounts of stress and poor gut health shouldn’t be overlooked. Psychological stress, chronic stress or dramatic life events seem to contribute to VZV reactivation, with studies showing an association between physical, emotional and sexual abuse and higher incidence of shingles. According to a report published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, contributing psychological factors for shingles development include financial stress, inability to work, decreased independence and an inadequate social-support environment. (9)
Is Shingles Contagious?
Wondering if you should be fearful of catching the virus from someone else, the same way you would chickenpox?
The virus that causes shingles usually presents itself as two distinct entities: chickenpox (the primary infection) and herpes zoster (the secondary condition). Unlike chickenpox, shingles normally isn’t considered a contagious virus, so likely you won’t catch it from being around someone who has an active virus. That being said, although it’s not very common, it’s not impossible to spread the virus from person to person if the receiver never had chickenpox or got the chickenpox vaccine.
Catching the chickenpox virus as a kid is a very common occurrence. According to a 2013 report published in the Journal of Pharmacy and Therapeutics, before the use of pediatric vaccines in the U.S., more than 90 percent of Americans had chickenpox before the age of 20. (10)
In some cases, shingles can be spread through direct contact with the blisters or fluid that’s leaked from open blisters. The virus won’t be caught, however, through “casual contact” like coughing, sneezing or sharing utensils, which makes it different than chickenpox and not nearly as contagious. Once the shingles blisters scab over, the virus is no longer considered transferable.
Should you consider giving your children the chickenpox vaccine or getting it yourself to lower your risk for shingles?
This is a controversial subject, as just about all vaccines (and even the overuse of antibiotics) are. Studies show that actually having chickenpox as a child may boost immunity against developing shingles at a later time. This means that the childhood varicella vaccine might actually increase the incidence of herpes zoster outbreaks later in life, especially during older adulthood. (11) One study found that the incidence of chickenpox and herpes zoster between 1992 and 2002 increased despite a rise in chickenpox vaccinations among children 1 to 4 years of age. This is a larger issue.
Gut health and Your Risk for Shingles Symptoms
You might not expect that the health of your gut has anything to do with whether or not you’d develop shingles, but the fact is that your microbiome (mostly present within your gut) majorly impacts your ability to stay protected from illnesses of all sorts. How so?
There’s a strong link between the bacteria living in our intestines and virtually every disease that threatens us, since bacteria are what make up most of our immune system. Today, there’s a big emphasis on conducting research that reveals how people with certain diseases have mixes of bacteria in their intestines that are very different than those of healthier people. The belief is that a microbiome that has a greater diversity of microbes and more “good bacteria” present is better able to fight off viruses, infections and illnesses. (12) Conversely, a microbiome with less diversity and more “bad bacteria” can lead to problems, such as leaky gut syndrome, that can increase the chances of developing shingles.
Some of the things that damage gut health most include taking antibiotics often — leading to antibiotic resistance — eating a poor diet and using chemical antibacterial products. Making some dietary and lifestyle changes can help improve immunity against viruses. For example, only using antibiotics when totally necessary, including more high-fiber foods in your diet, taking probiotics and eating natural probiotic foods, and using natural cleaning and beauty products are all ways to help foster a healthier, stronger microbiome, and thus help reduce the likelihood of shingles flaring up.
Natural Treatments for Shingles Symptoms
It’s important to visit a doctor right away if you think you’re developing shingles, since it can sometimes be mistaken for rashes like poison ivy, impetigo, scabies or herpes simplex virus. When pain persists, it might be mistaken for heart complications, migraines or menopausal symptoms.
Today, shingles is usually treated with a combination of medications, which are used to lower the severity of pain and help the scabs heal more quickly. However, many people have also successfully turned to alternative therapies to lower their odds of getting shingles in the first place, building up their immunity and managing pain.
Several studies have investigated the efficacy of complementary and alternative medicines in reducing the pain of nerve damage left over after shingles. Alternative approaches that seem to offer hope for managing long-term pain with few side effects include:
- improving someone’s diet to foster better gut health/immunity
- neural therapy
- using antiviral essential oils (such as oregano oil or peppermint)
- the Traditional Chinese Medicine practice of cupping and bleeding
- the use of Chinese herbs and adaptogens
According to studies done since the 1990s, all of these strategies have shown some benefit in reducing pain symptoms and other shingles symptoms, even when used without standard or conventional prescription treatments. One study published in the Journal of Therapeutics found that alternative therapies combined with selected medications, showed an average pain reduction of 72.1 percent to 77 percent in patients with herpes zoster. Almost two-thirds of the 56 patients with long-term pain reported pain reductions of between 75 percent and 100 percent. (13)
Shingles Symptoms Takeaways
- Shingles is a painful skin virus that emerges after someone has chickenpox, following a reactivation of the virus called “varicella zoster” (VZV) that has been dormant for some time.
- Almost one out of three people in the U.S. will develop shingles during a lifetime. As you get older, your risk goes up, since studies show that most people (over half) who develop shingles are over the age of 60.
- What are some of the most common risk factors for developing shingles symptoms? These include older age, having a weak immune system or poor gut health, a history of a disease that affects the immune system, being under a lot of stress, and taking certain prescriptions, among others.
- If you notice a rash but aren’t sure if it’s shingles or something else, the fact that shingles develops on either the left or right side of the body, but not both, is a good indicator that the rash is not due to another illness. This one-sided trait makes shingles different than most rashes caused by things like bug bites, food reactions or beauty product allergies.
- Unfortunately even after the rash clears up after about two to four weeks, pain might still be experienced for up to several more weeks as the nerves recalibrate and recover from the virus. This is called “postherpetic neuralgia” (PHN) and is considered to be the most common complication of shingles.
- Common risk factors for shingles symptoms include older age, especially being over 60; being a woman; having a history of a disease that affects the immune system; receiving an organ transplant; taking drugs that affect the immune system; having a family history of shingles; being Caucasian; experiencing injuries or nerve damage; and stress and poor gut health.
- Unlike chickenpox, shingles normally isn’t considered a contagious virus.
Read Next: 5 Shingles Natural Treatments
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