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The #1 Cause of Shingles, According to Science

Everything you need to know about the rash and blister-inducing disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every three Americans will develop shingles at some point in their lifetime. While the majority of people are well aware that the disease manifests itself as a blistering rash, there are many things you might not know about shingles, including why it occurs, who is most at risk and what its number one cause is. Read on to learn everything you need to know about shingles. Read on until the end so you can protect yourself—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What Are Shingles

Stethoscope on wood with shingles.

Shingles refers to a rash, usually with blisters, that can occur on any part of the body, explains Marjorie Golden, MD, Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist and associate professor of clinical medicine, Yale School of Medicine. And, it is related to a very common childhood disease. "Shingles is caused by reactivation of the chickenpox virus," Dr. Golden says. "Therefore, if you've never had chickenpox, you cannot get shingles."

The National Institute of Aging explains that the disease is caused by the same virus, the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), as the chickenpox. "After you recover from chickenpox, the virus continues to live in some of your nerve cells. It is usually inactive, so you don't even know it's there."


What Happens If You Have It?

Woman scratching her arm.

The most common manifestation of shingles is a rash. "The rash of shingles may have an unusual distribution, because it follows the pattern of nerve roots," explains Dr. Golden. A typical feature of shingles is that the rash usually stays on only one side of the body. "If untreated, the rash will typically heal on its own, though it may leave scarring and be accompanied by residual pain."

Depending on where shingles develop, other symptoms—like hiccups or loss of vision—can occur, per the NIA. 

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How Do I Know I Have It?

Man feeling stomach pain at home.

The first sign you have shingles is usually pain or burning, "which may last for several days before the rash becomes visible," says Dr. Golden. "Once the rash appears, it has a very characteristic appearance and is easily diagnosed." And, the NIA adds that some people only experience mild symptoms. "They might just have some itching. For others, shingles can cause intense pain that can be felt from the gentlest touch or breeze."

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Here Are the Top Contributing Factors

Woman holding pills on her hand.

Several factors are known to cause shingles including older age, use of steroids or other immunosuppressant medications, a weakened immune system (including HIV infection and cancer) and stress, according to Dr. Golden. "While we know that these factors increase the risk of getting shingles, some people without any risk factors can still be affected," she points out.   

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What Is the Number One Cause? 

Woman's neck with blisters scar and rash caused by chickenpox

The only way you can get shingles is if you were previously infected with the chickenpox. Therefore, the number one cause of shingles is the chickenpox. 

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How to Prevent It

Hands in blue gloves are typing a yellow vaccine in a syringe

Luckily, shingles are not contagious. The best way to prevent shingles is to get vaccinated, reveals Dr. Golden. "It is recommended that everyone over 50 get the Shingrix vaccine," she says. "The vaccine does not contain live virus so you cannot get shingles from the vaccine." You want to be careful scheduling your Shingrix vaccine and your COVID-19 vaccine: "Given the lack of data on the safety and efficacy of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines administered simultaneously with other vaccines, the COVID-19 vaccine series should routinely be administered alone," the CDC advises doctors. "You should wait a minimum of 14 days after administration of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine series to give a patient Shingrix. Alternatively, if a patient just received Shingrix, you should wait a minimum of 14 days before giving them the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine series."

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What to Do If You Notice Symptoms

woman Doctor in green uniform wear eyeglasses and surgical mask talking, consulting and giving advice to Elderly female patient at the hospital

 If you think you may have shingles, you should call your health provider, urges Dr. Golden. "Early treatment of shingles with antiviral medications can shorten the duration of the rash and prevent postherpetic neuralgia, the chronic pain that may complicate infection," she explains. "Importantly,  if you think you have shingles near the eye, it is very important to seek medical care immediately." And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Leah Groth
Leah Groth has decades of experience covering all things health, wellness and fitness related. Read more about Leah