January 01, 2016

Shingles

More common with age

Shingles

If you've ever had chickenpox, the virus that caused it — the varicella-zoster virus — is probably lying inactive in nerve tissue somewhere in your body. Factors such as illness, immune-suppressing medications or stress can permit the virus to reactivate, especially in adults older than 50.

When the virus reactivates, it spreads along a nerve pathway and causes what's often a painful, blistering skin rash known as shingles (herpes zoster).

There's no way to know when the virus may reactivate, or if it ever will. In this sense, shingles — as well as the complications it can sometimes cause — is a fairly unpredictable disease.

Still, you don't have to leave your risk of getting shingles to chance. There are fairly easy steps to greatly reduce your odds of getting shingles or to reduce the severity — or risk of complications — if you do get shingles.

The root problem

Nearly all adults 40 and older in the U.S. have had chickenpox, even though for some it may have gone unnoticed. For most, chickenpox was a one-time experience, typically occurring in childhood. However, the immune system never totally eliminates the virus that causes chickenpox, and what's left of it can remain inactive in nerve root cells near your spinal cord and brain.

Once you've had chickenpox, you develop immunity to the virus. Although the inactive virus may hole up and evade immune system detection in nerve cells, a healthy immune system can still keep the virus in check.

However, immunity to the virus may decrease with age. In addition, outbreaks of shingles are linked to factors that weaken...