While older adults have a higher risk of getting shingles, shingles can also occur in young people. Trends show an increasing rate of shingles among younger and middle-aged people.
Shingles is a condition that typically affects older adults. While the risk of getting shingles increases as a person ages, anyone who has had chickenpox may develop shingles.
This article explores shingles and why young people may also get shingles. It also compares younger people and children who develop the condition, possible complications, treatment, and prevention.
Shingles is a viral infection characterized by a painful, blistering skin rash.
It occurs due to the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (VCV) — the same virus that causes chickenpox. The virus remains dormant in the body and may reactivate later in life. VZV belongs to a group of viruses called herpes viruses. People also refer to shingles as “herpes zoster.”
Most who get shingles are older than 50 years. Its incidence increases with age and is
However, while the rate of shingles among older adults has been reducing from 2008–2016, its rate among adults ages 30 and up has
Similarly, a 2016 study found a 4.5-fold increase in the incidence of shingles among all age groups over the past six decades in the U.S.
Shingles can develop in
Read more about the link between shingles and chickenpox.
What causes the virus to reactivate remains unknown. However, it
The cause of the increasing incidence of shingles also remains unknown. However, there are several theories outlined below.
People unknowingly had chickenpox or missed their vaccines
The chickenpox vaccine
Those born before may have had chickenpox or not received the vaccination, which may explain the occasional cases of shingles in young adults.
Increased childhood vaccinations
The rate of shingles has increased since the chickenpox vaccine became available. The increased number of shingles
The theory is that a person’s immunity may not be as strong as the natural immunity a person gets from exposure to chickenpox. Since the varicella vaccines use the weakened form of the virus, it induces the body to produce antibodies against the virus rather than naturally developing it.
Alternatively, parents and caregivers may encourage their children to build immunity before adulthood.
Rise of chronic diseases
Increased healthcare-seeking and awareness
Another theory is that more people are seeking healthcare than before. The increase in healthcare professionals may also contribute to increased awareness about the disease.
People with chronic diseases may also have poor immune functions, which may put them at an increased risk of developing shingles.
Another speculation is the role of environmental factors in the reactivation of the virus.
Several studies reported a higher incidence in summer due to increased exposure to UV radiation, which may suppress cell-mediated immunity and promote virus reactivation.
A person’s risk of developing shingles
People with the following conditions are at risk of shingles:
- cancer, especially leukemia and lymphoma
- recipients of solid organ or bone marrow transplants
- individuals taking immunosuppressive medications, including those for:
- cancer, such as chemotherapy
- autoimmune conditions, such as steroids
Shingles typically present symptoms before the rashes appear. These include:
- sensitivity to touch
- numbness and tingling sensation in the affected area
- sensitivity to light — photophobia
- malaise — a general feeling of discomfort or illness
Learn more about the timeline of shingles.
A painful rash typically appears 2–3 days after the initial symptoms.
While the rash can appear on any part of the body, it
The rash develops into clusters before drying and crusting. This phase may last for 2–4 weeks before healing.
People with shingles
Direct contact with the fluid from the blister can spread the VCV virus and cause chickenpox in people who have never received the chickenpox vaccine or have never had chickenpox.
Learn more about how a person can contract shingles.
Shingles can also appear on the face and affect the eyes and mouth.
Shingles in the eye or herpes zoster ophthalmicus occur in
Learn more about shingles in the eye.
This condition may lead to:
- debilitating pain
- chronic eye inflammation
- vision loss
Shingles oticus, also known as Ramsay Hunt syndrome type II, occurs when the virus spreads from the facial nerve to the vestibulocochlear nerve. It can lead to vertigo and hearing loss.
Children younger than 3 years rarely develop shingles. It tends to be less severe when it affects younger age groups.
It typically presents with initial symptoms of pain and tingling sensation — paresthesia — followed by a flat rash.
Learn more about the early stages of shingles.
Throughout the course of the condition, as with adults, shingles in children may involve:
- sharp burning pain
Child risk factors
Children who are at risk of shingles include those:
- who have had chickenpox before turning 1 year old
- whose birthing parent contracted chickenpox very late in their pregnancy
- with a weakened immune system
Infants whose birthing parent contracts chickenpox
Children may also present with the following symptoms:
Complications of herpes zoster
- Disseminated zoster: This occurs if there are more than 20 lesions outside the initial site. It may also affect organs, causing encephalitis and hepatitis.
- Postherpetic neuralgia: This may result in persistent pain 1 month after the onset of shingles.
- Other conditions: The involvement of the nervous system, leading to:
- cranial neuropathies
- aseptic meningitis
- partial facial paralysis
- Pregnancy complications: Shingles early in the pregnancy may cause complications in the fetus.
A person who thinks they have shingles should talk with a doctor
It is also essential to seek immediate help if shingles are near the eye or ear to avoid complications such as hearing and vision loss.
While there is no cure for shingles, antiviral medications can help limit the pain and clear blisters faster.
Antiviral medications can help reduce the length and severity of shingles. However, these are most effective when a person takes them within 3 days after the rashes appear. These medications
A person may also use the following to relieve pain and discomfort caused by shingles:
- wet compress
- over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers
- calamine lotion
- colloidal oatmeal baths
Vaccination is the best way to prevent shingles.
Both children and adults who have never had chickenpox should get the varicella vaccination. Nine out of 10 children who receive a single dose develop immunity against chickenpox.
People who received the now-discontinued Zostavax vaccine before 2020 should consider getting the Shingrix vaccine.
Most shingles clear within
Shingles can affect anyone who contracted chickenpox in the past. While shingles is a condition that affects older adults, current trends show an increasing rate of viral infection in younger adults.
A person who develops shingles should immediately seek medical help for prompt treatment. Getting antiviral medication within 3 days of the appearance of the rash can help quicken recovery, reduce its severity, and prevent the likelihood of postherpetic neuralgia.