How do you get shingles?
If you had chickenpox as a child, you should be immune to chickenpox in the future. So you might assume you are immune to shingles because it’s caused by the same virus. Unfortunately, that’s not so.
It turns out the varicella-zoster virus isn’t gone after you recover from chickenpox Instead, it lurks inside your body. You won’t get chickenpox again from it, but you could get shingles.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke points out scientists believe some of the virus particles from the original chickenpox infection leave skin blisters and travel into the nervous system, where they remain for decades. The virus may never cause any more problems, but it can become reactivated and travel back through long nerve fibers that connect sensory cells to your skin. As the virus multiplies, symptoms develop, and the shingles rash appears.
Why does the virus reactive to cause shingles?
So far, scientists don’t have the answer to this obvious question: How do you get shingles when other people who also have had chickenpox never develop shingles?
In fact, no one knows exactly why the virus gets reactivated in some people. So there is no way of knowing who will, or won’t, get the viral disease — although being vaccination against shingles greatly lowers your chances.
The National Institute on Aging lists these factors known to raise the risk of shingles:
- Getting older. Aging is associated with how you get shingles. Around fifty percent of all shingles cases are in adults age 60 or older, and the chance of getting shingles increases substantially by age 70.
- Difficulty fighting infections. Anything, including aging, that weakens your immune system can impact how your body responds to infections — including the shingles-causing virus. Having HIV or cancer can make you more susceptible to a shingles outbreak, and so can cancer treatments, too much sun, or organ transplant drugs. In addition, life and work stress or having a cold or the flu can weaken your immune system temporarily, putting you at an increased risk for shingles.
March 26, 2020
Janet O'Dell, RN