What Causes a Shingles Outbreak?

It’s severely painful, incurable, and growing in prevalence year over year. In fact, the numbers show that nearly one out of every three Americans will develop shingles in their lifetime.

Unless you or someone you know has had a personal run-in with the disease, it’s safe to assume that your knowledge is limited. To help, we’re going to shine a light on this troubling viral disease to clear up misconceptions and, most importantly, to keep you safe.

What is Shingles?

A viral infection that typically presents itself as a painful rash, shingles can be debilitating. It’s caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which can lay dormant in an individual’s nerve tissue for years, before being reactivated as shingles.

Painful as it is, contracting shingles isn’t life-threatening. The virus has caused fewer than 100 deaths annually since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started keeping records.

Zostavax and Shingrix are the two most prominent preventative vaccines on the market today, though even those can’t guarantee immunity.

Mercifully, there are treatment options available. Antiviral drugs like Zovirax and Valtrex have been relied on to aid healing and reduce the risk of complications once a shingles diagnosis has been confirmed.

Shingles Symptoms

Shingles is most commonly associated with a red rash, localized at a small section on one side of the torso. However, this visible symptom doesn’t typically present itself until a few days after the infection begins.

It is, in fact, the pain that first presents itself. Intense burning, numbness, or tingling is the first sign of shingles, leaving the affected area sensitive to the touch. After a few days, the rash follows, which is sometimes coupled with fluid-filled blisters that break open and scab over.

While those are the main shingles symptoms, other patients have reported experiencing fever, headache, light sensitivity, and fatigue.

Causes of Shingles

Chickenpox

While there are a lot of unknowns, the link between shingles and chickenpox is clear. Simply put, if you’ve ever contracted chickenpox in your lifetime, you are susceptible to a shingles outbreak.

Chickenpox is an exceptionally contagious disease, typified by body aches, fever, and a body full of itchy blisters. Caused by the varicella-zoster virus, it often clears after a week or so. However, the virus lays dormant in the sufferer’s nerve tissue. That is, it remains dormant until a combination of known and unknown factors result in its re-emergence as a shingles outbreak.

Aging

Why shingles appear and what contributes to an outbreak is largely shrouded in mystery. The medical community does know that shingles outbreaks disproportionately affect older adults. If you’re over the age of 50 and have chickenpox in your medical history, you’re at risk, though it can affect younger people as well.

The reason for the unfair targeting of senior citizens is simple: their immune system is weaker. Part of the aging process is a weakening of the immune system which, for some yet to be discovered reason, can lead to an outbreak.

Stress

Old age isn’t the only known contributor. Stress has been blamed as well.

Stress can certainly wreak havoc on your body. It has been shown to negatively impact your sleep, cause rapid weight gain, increase your risk of stroke, and lower your immune system.

Did you catch that last one?

Remember, a lowered immune system, when combined with the varicella-zoster virus and old age, can increase the likelihood of a shingles outbreak.

Other Diseases

Battling other diseases has been shown to increase an individual’s risk of a shingles outbreak too.

Diseases that weaken your immune system, like HIV/AIDS, greatly impact the likelihood of an outbreak. Chronic medical conditions like cancer — more specifically, leukemia or lymphoma — and diabetes are also linked to shingles.

Medications and Treatments

If you are undergoing treatments or taking medications that weaken your immune system, then you may be at risk for a shingles outbreak. For instance, the steroids and drugs that are prescribed to a patient following an organ transplant have been shown to indirectly contribute to shingles outbreaks.

Other medications and treatments that have led to shingles outbreaks in the past include popular cancer-fighting treatments like radiation and chemotherapy.

Shingles and You

Painful, debilitating, and incurable, shingles is the silent menace that kicks us when we’re down. Like when we age, when we’re stressed, or when we’re fighting other, much more serious medical issues.

It isn’t all bad news though. For starters, shingles is far from fatal. And, with preventative vaccines and treatments widely available, doctors can treat it effectively.

It’s nearly impossible to protect yourself from shingles if you’ve had chickenpox in the past, but there are things that you can do to lower your risk and shorten your recovery team. This includes:

  • Getting the vaccine if you’re over the age of 60;
  • Visiting your doctor if you perceive any of the most common symptoms of shingles, and;
  • Managing your stress.

More importantly, take care of your body, learn as much as you possibly can, and visit your doctor regularly.

Chokchai Silarug / Getty Images

Sep 5, 2019
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