The varicella-zoster virus, or VZV, is usually associated with itchy, scratchy, polka-dotted children. VZV causes chickenpox, the infection that results in spots all over the body that itch like crazy.
But if you’ve had chickenpox before, your relationship with VZV may not be over just yet. When you get older, the virus might “wake up” in your body and cause a second infection, known as shingles.
Here’s how it works: As chickenpox symptoms fade away, VZV hibernates in the body like a bear. Even though you’re not having chickenpox symptoms for decades, the virus is still in you, but it’s dormant. However, something may trigger the virus to activate in some people, and that triggers shingles.
Everyone knows what chickenpox looks like: red, fluid-filled blisters speckled all over the body. Shingles is a little different. Most people describe it as more of a painful burn than a severe itch. Other symptoms of shingles include:
A blistering rash that usually occurs in a stripe across one side of the face or body
And upset stomach.
Not everyone who has had chickenpox gets shingles, which means there must be something that activates the virus for certain people. The main theory is that something compromises or weakens the immune system, allowing the virus to take over again. For this reason, risk factors of shingles include:
Being over age 50
Taking certain medications, such as immunosuppressants
Having certain conditions that weaken the immune system, such as HIV
Receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy
And experiencing high levels of stress.
If you get shingles, don’t panic: It’s temporary. Shingles can be treated by antiviral drugs, which can lessen the severity and duration of the infection. Shingles is not treated with an antibiotic, which only treats bacterial infections. (Learn more about the difference between viruses and bacteria here.)
While you wait for the singles infection to pass, be sure to cover your blisters with bandages. This helps prevent the infection from spreading. Shingles is technically contagious, albeit less so than chickenpox. Once the shingles blister over, you’re no longer contagious.
But here’s the thing: Shingles can potentially be prevented thanks to the new zoster vaccine. The vaccine reduces the likelihood of getting shingles by half, and those who got it despite vaccination experienced a less severe shingles infection, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.