Midwest, U.S. – “I’m in my 30s. I can’t have shingles,” Linda Noll thought when her Mercy physician diagnosed her first episode. “That’s an old person’s condition. I self-diagnosed myself and decided it was poison ivy, so the word ‘shingles’ came as quite a surprise.”
While shingles most commonly occur in people 50 years or older, it can occur in younger people too. Over 1 million cases are diagnosed annually in the U.S. and anyone who has had chicken pox can develop shingles. The varicella zoster virus (VZV) remains in the nerve cells of the body after the chicken pox infection clears and VZV can reappear years later, causing shingles.
“Shingles is a painful skin rash that often looks like blisters,” said Mercy Clinic’s Dr. Sheri Bethmann. “Cases in younger people can be stress-related. Stress raises a person’s cortisol level which can weaken their immune system.”
Because the shingles virus is dormant in the nerve roots on each side of the body, the rash generally appears on one side but in some rare cases it can cross the body’s center line.
”Most people will only get shingles once, if at all, but it is possible to get it three or four times,” Dr. Bethmann said.
That was the case with Noll. Her second episode occurred while in her mid 50s and her symptoms were almost identical to her first: a painful itchy spot near her mid back. Then a few years later, she noticed a lesion on her right eye. She knew that was serious and worked with her physician to get vaccinated.
“A lesion near the eye is dangerous,” explained Dr. Bethmann. “Vision loss can occur if the eye is affected and not treated. In rare cases, it can cause infection in the brain or other areas of the body.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend people 60 years and older get a shingles vaccine, regardless of whether or not they have had chicken pox or shingles. Exceptions include:
Shingles cannot be passed from one person to another; however, someone with shingles can cause someone else to get chicken pox if they have never been vaccinated or had chicken pox. The most common complication from shingles is Post Herpetic Neuralgia (PHN), a persistent pain in the area where the rash once was. To learn more about shingles or chicken pox, talk with your Mercy physician or visit mercy.net to find a physician in your area.