Shingles: The Adult Version of Chicken Pox - Are You at Risk?

Most adults who had the chicken pox when they were children would be loathe to repeat the experience.

The itching, the scratching, the general feeling of malaise.

In fact, many people think that once they've had the childhood malady, they are immune from getting it again.

But the chicken pox never goes away, and anyone who had the virus as a child is at risk of it coming back later in life, but with an entirely different set of symptoms.

Shingles, a reactivated, adult version of the childhood disease, can be much more painful. And unlike the chicken pox, where spots are likely to show up all over the body, shingles are confined to one side of a nerve, said Dr. Joseph Rahimian, an infectious disease specialist at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan.

“What makes it easy for doctors, if you get shingles, is that it’ll always be on one side or the other,” Rahimian told “It’ll never cross over to the other side of the body.”

Are You at Risk?

The chicken pox virus usually reactivates as shingles when a person’s immune system is weakened: For many people it’s because they are stressed, for others it’s because their immune systems have been weakened by infections, or it can occur in the elderly, who have naturally weakened immune systems.

That’s why anyone over 60 who had chicken pox as a child should receive Zostavax, the shingles vaccine, which will decrease their chances of getting the disease, Rahimian said.

If you have never had chicken pox, you are not at risk for shingles.

However, the disease is so contagious, many adults most likely had it as a child and might not remember having a mild case of the virus, Rahimian said. A simple blood test can determine if the varicella virus lives within your body.

Shingles can result in postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN — a condition affecting nerve fibers and skin. PHN can occur in the area where the rash happens, and that can lead to extreme pain, Rahimian said. PHN can linger long after the shingles have cleared up.

“It’s also a cosmetic issue, it can scar. But the biggest issue is that the pain is very severe, that’s why the vaccine is being promoted. The vaccine reduces PHN.”

Before you actually come down with shingles, you may feel a tingling or abnormal sensation in the area where the rash is going to develop. Patients do not develop fevers.

Once shingles develops, the rash will look like small cysts, Rahimian said, and it’s imperative to see a doctor immediately, as there are anti-viral medications that can treat the disease.

The average shingles case takes seven to 10 days to clear.