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Is there a Connection Between Stress and Shingles?

Developing the shingles virus is common, with almost one out of three people in the U.S. experiencing it within their lifetime. And unfortunately, this number is on the rise, with more people of all age groups developing shingles (or herpes zoster) than ever before. Emerging studies cite a few different reasons for this trend, including having a compromised immune system due to illness or stress.

So, can stress trigger a shingles outbreak? We explore the connection between stress and shingles.

First, What Causes Shingles?

If you’ve had chickenpox as a child, you may develop shingles later on in life. However, very rarely people who have not had chickenpox before have developed shingles. Even after you have overcome the chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in your body’s nerve cells. Shingles occur when the chickenpox virus called varicella zoster virus (VZV) reactivates, causing a painful rash of blisters to appear. Shingles typically last anywhere from two to six weeks. Typically, the first symptom of shingles is a burning sensation or tingling pain that occurs on one side of the body in a band-like pattern. You may also feel itching and severe pain from even the lightest touch.

As you get older, your risk of developing shingles increases. The majority of people who develop shingles are 50 and older. As we age, our immune systems become less effective at defending us against bacterial, fungi and viral infections, making us more susceptible to the shingles virus. 

How Stress and Shingles are Related

The reactivation of the VZV virus is linked to a weakened immune system, which can be a byproduct of stress. When the body is put under extreme stress, it can cause many negative effects on the mind and body, including creating a compromised immune system. Having a lowered immune system can make it harder for your body to defend itself against viruses, including the VZV virus. Other diseases such as HIV, cancer, cancer treatments and immunotherapy can also decrease immune system efficiency.

Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations, but the way you cope with these situations is important in ensuring a healthy body and mind. Here are a few tips for improving and managing the stress in your life for a healthier you:

Sleep: Getting enough sleep is essential for a healthy mind. Unfortunately, many of us do not get enough sleep. The Mayo Clinic states that in general, adults need between seven and nine hours of good sleep each night.

Physical Activity: Receiving the proper amount of exercise can benefit many areas of your life and can even decrease your chances of developing many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. It is recommended to get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week.

Eat a Healthy Diet: Eating a nutrient-rich diet is not only important for your physical health, but it can play a role in your overall mood. Recent research into the mental health and nutrition connection reveals that eating foods rich in zinc, magnesium, omega 3 and vitamins B and D3 can help improve your mood, reduce anxiety and even help treat depression.

Treating Shingles

The shingles virus is preventable by vaccine. The vaccine Shingrix is more than 90% effective for preventing shingles and postherpetic neuralgia (severe pain where the area of the shingles developed). The risk of developing postherpetic neuralgia also increases with age. For the first four years after you receive the vaccine, protection will remain at least 85% effective. The CDC recommends adults over 50 years of age and older receive the vaccine. In addition, if you have had shingles in the past, you can receive this vaccine to prevent future infections as you may develop the virus two or more times.

While there is no cure for shingles once you have developed it, there are a few prescription antiviral drugs that can help provide relief and reduce the risk of complications. Your doctor may provide you anti-viral prescriptions including Acyclovir (Zovirax), Famciclovir and Valacyclovir (Valtrex). To treat the pain caused by shingles, your doctor may also prescribe you pain medications such as codeine. There are also numbing creams, such as lidocaine, that can be topically applied to reduce pain.

If you are age 50 or over, talk to your primary care provider about getting the vaccine. At PACT, a partner of Hartford HealthCare, our doctors and specialists are dedicated to delivering high-quality patient-centered care. If you or a loved one are searching for a primary care provider, click here to search PACT’s list of Connecticut-based, board-certified doctors near you.

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