If you’ve had chickenpox, you could be at risk for shingles at *any* age.
Have you heard of shingles? Yes, it’s a kind of roofing material—but shingles is also that painful disease that your grandparents may have had. Or you’ve seen commercials about it for treatment, which only feature actors in an older age group.
Here’s the thing: Younger people can also suffer from shingles. It all depends on whether you’ve had chickenpox (the varicella-zoster virus) before. Young adults are often not aware or educated about how to reduce their risk for shingles at an early age.
Shingles Risk Factors (at Any Age)
After you've gotten chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in your body. Shingles occurs when this virus reactivates due to some type of trigger. When this happens, the infection attacks your nerves.
Triggers that may reactivate the virus usually come from acute stress (whether physical, mental, or emotional), such as:
- A major surgery
- Long periods of fitness training
- A weakened immune system
- Chronic stress at work
- A traumatic experience
Why Older Adults Have a Higher Risk
Since a weakened immune system is more susceptible to a trigger, shingles is generally more common and more severe in people over age 50. That’s why the shingles vaccine is recommended at age 50—because your immune system weakens as you age. That said, people of all ages can have weakened immune systems, such as from chronic diseases like AIDS.
Older adults also have a higher risk of lasting pain from shingles, which is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), and a higher risk of hospitalization from shingles. About 10 to 18 percent of people who get shingles have potentially debilitating PHN, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s why young adults need to pay attention to their bodies, their overall physical and mental wellness, their social calendars, and their stress management. This is good advice for overall health, but it can also help prevent shingles and catch it early.
What to Look For
The available shingles treatments are more effective the earlier you start them. This is yet another reason why younger adults need to be aware of their risk for shingles—and what the symptoms look like.
Before an outbreak, you may notice chills, head or body aches where the rash will likely occur, and even have sensitivity to light or migraines. Eventually, the shingles virus often results in a rash along your nerve patterns with painful blistering, usually on just one side of your body.
If the shingles outbreak is close to or on your eye, you could suffer vision loss. Some patients with longer shingles infections can develop cognitive issues. People with shingles may also suffer from hearing loss, a brief paralysis of the face, peripheral neuropathy, or even encephalitis (swelling of the brain). These complications are less likely when someone seeks early treatment.
One last thing: If you’ve never had chickenpox or its vaccine, head to your doctor ASAP for one. If you can avoid getting chickenpox, you can avoid getting shingles.
- Shingles (Herpes Zoster) Signs & Symptoms. Washington, D.C.: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019. (Accessed on April 13, 2021)
- Shingles (Herpes Zoster) Treating Shingles. Washington, D.C.: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019. (Accessed on April 13, 2021)
- Shingles (Herpes Zoster) Shingles Burden and Trends. Washington, D.C.: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019. (Accessed on April 13, 2021)
- National Institute on Aging: Shingles. Washington, D.C: Department of Health and Human Services, 2021. (Accessed on April 13, 2021)
- Shingles Myths and Facts. Bethesda, MD: National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. (Accessed on April 13, 2021)