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Shingles: What You Need To Know About the Virus You Likely Have

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Nobody likes to get sick. In fact, nobody even likes the idea of being sick. Very often (and as a good practice) many people will visit their doctor as soon as they experience signs or symptoms of illness. After all, how would know you had something unless you had symptoms? While this is true for most conditions, when it comes to shingles, you likely already have it.

Unless you were a lucky child who received a chickenpox vaccine and thus, didn’t get chickenpox, then this doesn’t apply to you. However, if you are among the generations of people who as children had chickenpox, may we suggest you keep reading.

Chickenpox was a rite of passage for many children, with parents often purposely exposing their kids in order to get it done and over with because as an adult, chickenpox is much worse. However, if you had chickenpox, then the virus is still inside of you, albeit dormant – for the time being that is.

Almost one out of three people will develop shingles during their lifetime, and while the risk of developing shingles increases after age 60, about 1 million people of all ages experience the painful, blistering skin rash each year, said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.

“Shingles is very common. If you got chicken pox as a child, you get over the illness but the virus remains. It’s like a bear in hibernation. The virus hides in areas of nervous tissue,” Schaffner said.

The varicella zoster virus is the pathogen that causes chickenpox and if you are unlucky, shingles further done the road. Sadly, doctors and scientists don’t know why the virus decides to rear its ugly head later in life.

It’s a misconception that shingles only affects older people – while it is most common after age 60 about half of cases are in people under 60. For people who reach 80, between one-third and one-half will develop shingles, Schaffner said.

One of the reasons shingles is more prevalent may be because of an aging population. As we age, our immune systems weaken and it becomes more difficult for our natural defenses to fight off the virus, Schaffner said. Additionally, people whose immune system is compromised – such as those fighting cancer or HIV, on certain medications or undergoing stress – are more likely to develop shingles.

Depending on how severe the case, shingles can be excruciatingly painful and can last for about two to four weeks. It’s itchy, burning, even stabbing and can disrupt daily living activities such as dressing and bathing, Schaffner said.

Even worse, for some people the pain can last for years if the nerve that shingles followed suffers lasting damage. That’s called postherpetic neuralgia and can be so severe and debilitating that wind ruffling a shirt will bring pain, Schaffner said.

If you have had chickenpox as a child, you may want to speak to your doctor about the shingles vaccine. As the timeless adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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