Understanding shingles: causes and complications

Learn more about the causes, complications and risk factors associated with shingles.

About four weeks ago, I was diagnosed with shingles. Shingles is a painful rash that is very distinctive because it usually develops on one side of the body with a single strip of blisters that wrap around the torso. Nearly 1 million people will get shingles in the U.S. with half of the cases affecting men and women over the age of 60.

What causes shingles?

According to the Mayo Clinic shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk of developing shingles. After recovering from chickenpox the virus can enter the body’s nervous system and remain dormant, or inactive, for years.

Who is at risk of developing shingles?

The Mayo Clinic warns that the varicella-zoster can be passed to anyone who isn’t immune to chickenpox, however, this can only occur through direct contact with the open sores of the shingles rash. If a person does get infected in this manner, they will develop chickenpox, not shingles. People with an active case of shingles should avoid contact with newborns, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system.

The reasons behind the shingles virus reactivating is not clear. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that some people may be at a greater risk of getting shingles:

  • If they have a medical and/or chronic condition that affects their immunity. Examples include those with certain types of cancers and HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus).
  • When taking certain types of drugs. Examples are immunosuppressive drugs (such as steroids) or medications administered after an organ transplant.
What are the complications associated with shingles?

Complications vary, but the most common is severe pain where the rash developed. The CDC reports that the pain can be debilitating with no treatment or cure, even after the rash clears up. Long-term pain is more common in older people, and can become worse over time. Shingles can also lead to serious issues involving the eye. Very rarely, shingles can also cause pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation or death.

Michigan State University Extension recommends contacting your healthcare professional immediately if you, or someone you care for, suspects they might have shingles. For more information on chronic disease, visit MSU Extension.

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