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photo of a piece of paper with a description of shingles and a vial of a vaccine

Can stress trigger shingles?

Can too much stress cause you to develop shingles? Pratik Thaker, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician, explains what causes shingles, when to seek medical care and how to treat symptoms.

What is shingles?

Shingles is a painful, blistering rash that typically develops on one side of the face or body. It’s estimated that one in three people in the United States will have shingles at some point in their lives. And if you’ve ever had chickenpox, you’re at risk.

“Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus,” says Dr. Thaker. “Once you’ve recovered from chickenpox, the virus stays dormant in your spinal cord and can reactivate at any time.”

Your risk of developing shingles increases as you get older. And, unfortunately, it’s possible to get shingles more than once.

Why stress increases the risk of shingles

Stress can increase your risk of developing shingles,” says Dr. Thaker. “A severe amount of stress can weaken the immune system, which can allow the virus to reactivate.”

You can help manage stress through activities like:

Symptoms of shingles

“The onset of symptoms is the biggest difference between chickenpox and shingles,” says Dr. Thaker. “A chickenpox rash is usually diffused through the body, while shingles usually develops on one side of the face or body.”

Shingles symptoms can start before you develop a rash. Warning signs include itching, tingling or pain where the rash will soon appear.

When the rash develops, it typically causes painful blisters that scab over after a week to 10 days. Shingles usually completely clears up within two to four weeks.

Other symptoms of shingles can include:

  • Upset stomach

  • Headache

  • Chills

  • Fever

“Shingles is most concerning when it develops on the face,” he says. “If it gets in the eye, it can potentially cause vision loss.”

What to do if you have shingles symptoms

If you notice any of the above symptoms, contact your primary care provider or urgent care right away.

“Your provider can get you on an antiviral treatment ASAP,” says Dr. Thaker.

Early antiviral treatment is crucial because it can reduce your risk of postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN can cause severe nerve pain in the area where shingles developed, even after the rash has cleared.

He also recommends at-home treatments to relieve pain and itching, including:

  • Over-the-counter pain medication like ibuprofen

  • Calamine lotion

  • Oatmeal baths

Keep your blisters covered to avoid spreading the varicella-zoster virus to people who have never had chickenpox.

How to reduce your risk of shingles

Dr. Thaker says getting the shingles vaccine can help reduce your risk.

“If you’re 50 or older, talk to your doctor about the shingles vaccine,” he says. “It’s also available for people who are 19 and older with certain conditions that weaken their immune systems.”

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