Risk for shingles increases with age

Contributing columnistAugust 29, 2014 

Almost one out of every three people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime. By some estimates there are as many as one million cases of shingles nationally each year.

Shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person has chickenpox, the virus remains in the body and becomes dormant. The virus can reactivate years later and cause shingles.

Shingles causes a painful rash that most often appears as blisters that wrap around one side of the torso. The rash can, however, appear anywhere on the body. It is not life-threatening, but can be extremely painful.

Other symptoms can include itching, fever, achiness, headache and fatigue. Pain is usually the first symptom.

Anyone who had chickenpox can develop shingles, including children. However, the risk for shingles increases with age. Roughly half of all cases of shingles occur in individuals over the age of 60.

There are other factors that can cause and increase risk for shingles, such as medical conditions that affect the immune system, including certain cancers and HIV. Individuals who have undergone an organ transplant and received immunosuppressive drugs to fight rejection are also at an increased risk.

Like chickenpox, individuals who develop shingles typically have only one episode in their lifetime.

While there is no cure, treatment using antiviral medications can speed up recovery times and reduce the risk of developing complications.

The best prevention for shingles is vaccination. The chickenpox vaccine is now a routine childhood vaccination. A shingles vaccine is available for older adults. While neither vaccine guarantees an individual will not get the illness, the vaccine reduces the risk and often the severity of the illness.

Dr. Ann Rodden is with KentuckyOne Health Primary Care Associates.

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