It’s a common saying that once you get chickenpox, you’ll never have the illness again. This statement is only partially true, though. While you may never experience that whole-body, itching, burning illness, you may be susceptible to another type of illness later in life: shingles.
Also known as herpes zoster, shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella zoster virus—the same one that causes chickenpox. Once the virus is in the body, it can reactive in the form of shingles. The shingles virus causes itching and burning rashes and painful blisters in some areas of the body.
Typically, shingles afflicts older individuals; however, more and more young adults have been falling ill with shingles in recent years. Researchers believe that this outbreak in younger people is due to stress.
Shingles is characterized by the rashes and blisters it causes on the torso and face. The illness usually begins with a burning or tingling sensation on the skin, followed by a localized rash of small, red bumps. During this time, you may experience flu- or cold-like symptoms such as headaches, chills, body aches, nausea and a fever. Fluid-filled blisters appear shortly after and will then dry out and crust over before healing.
The rash and blisters that shingles causes may be itchy or painful to the touch. These symptoms often appear on only one side of the body and may be in a “band”-like shape. This is because the varicella zoster virus goes dormant in the nerves and emerges along a nerve path.
If you begin to experience the symptoms of shingles, it’s recommended that you see a doctor to receive treatment. Some anti-viral medications may help reduce pain and itching. Additionally, at-home treatments like rest, fluids, cool compresses and oatmeal baths can reduce symptoms.
The symptoms of shingles will usually last between two and four weeks. In some cases, people may develop a pain syndrome called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), which causes severe pain in the areas of the body afflicted by the shingles rash.
Shingles can affect anyone who has had chickenpox, and sometimes affects people vaccinated against chickenpox. However, not all people who experienced chickenpox will develop shingles.
The link between stress and shingles
Shingles usually affects older adults, but more and more young adults have been getting diagnosed with the virus. The condition is also common in people with weakened immune systems, such as people with HIV/AIDS. This connection may explain why stress is believed to be a trigger for shingles. Stress in young adults is at an all-time high between jobs, relationships and other matters. High levels of stress in younger people may be the cause of recent shingles outbreaks.
Daily, chronic or traumatic stress can wreak havoc on the body in numerous ways. Stress can affect your sleeping habits, cause mood problems and mental disorders like anxiety or depression and cause hair and weight loss. It can also weaken your immune system. This is because stress hormones like cortisol suppress the immune system’s effectiveness over time, making you more susceptible to illness.
When you have a weakened immune system, no matter if it is due to an underlying health problem like cancer or due to stress, the body is unable to fight off viruses and bacteria that are waiting to take over. It is during this suppressed time that the varicella zoster virus may be able to reactivate and cause shingles.
Prolonged stress is not only a trigger for shingles, but it may also make your shingles worse. People enduring severe stress tend to feel worse when sick and experience more pain. Additionally, it may take longer for you to get over the illness—prolonging your pain—because the immune system is not strong enough to combat it.
Ways to manage stress and protect your health
In order to prevent an outbreak of shingles, or to get over your current case of shingles more quickly, take measures to manage your stress. There are many easy and cheap ways to do this on your own. Plus, all of them will improve your overall health and lifestyle, so they’re good for you even if you’re not at risk for shingles.
- Identify your triggers: Take time to examine your stressors and find ways to minimize them in your life as much as possible.
- Meditate: Meditation and deep breathing can help you unwind during the day. If you’re feeling stressed, try a quick five-minute meditation session. Or, get into the habit of doing yoga before bed.
- Enjoy a healthy lifestyle: Eating healthily and avoiding products like alcohol and tobacco that can hurt your health will help you feel better and more easily manage stress.
- Take adaptogens: Certain herbs called adaptogens can help you overcome the overwhelming feelings of stress and manage it day-to-day. Ashwagandha is particularly beneficial for anxiety and stress.
- Sleep effectively: Sleep is how your body heals and recharges. If you’re not getting a full night’s rest each night, you’re putting your body through additional stress.
- Try vitamins and supplements: Supplements can help ensure you’re getting enough of the vitamins your body needs to stay healthy. Some supplements are even specially-formulated to help relieve stress naturally.
- Exercise: Exercise releases endorphins, the feel-good chemical in your brain, and reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. This combination, on top of making you healthier and stronger, can help reduce stress and take your mind off the negative parts of your life.
Taking steps to manage your stress will not only help prevent early outbreaks of shingles, but it will make your life healthier and happier. If you do get shingles, remember to continue managing your stress and visit a doctor for treatment recommendations.