Shingles in Young Adults—What To Know

You should know what to look out for if you're young but at risk for shingles.

If you've ever had chickenpox, then the virus that causes shingles (the varicella-zoster virus) is present in your body and is most likely inactive. However, at some point in the future, it could resurface and travel from your nerves to your skin, resulting in a painful rash.

It's not uncommon for individuals to get shingles. Nearly one in three people in the U.S. will get shingles during their lifetime. Additionally, shingles have long been thought of as an infection that mainly affects older adults, specifically those between the ages of 60 and 80 but at least individuals aged 50 or older.

However, researchers found that the prevalence of shingles among Americans younger than 50 more than quadrupled from the late 1940s to the early 2000s. And, anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles, even as a young adult.

Below are photos from young adults with shingles who shared their experiences online, hoping to warn people about what the condition looks like and how it can manifest.

Symptoms in Young Adults

A news anchor from Florida shared his experience with shingles to raise awareness among younger people that they might also be at risk. According to News4Jax, Scott Johnson, who was in his early 40s, developed an excruciatingly painful case in October 2018.

Johnson said he first noticed a hard, painful welt on the back of his neck. But soon it became an unbearable rash, and the symptoms then spread to his face.

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Shingles symptoms go beyond having a painful rash, which typically occurs in a single stripe around either the left or right side of the body. The area where shingles appear may be numb, tingling, or itchy, and any rashes may turn into blisters that scab over in the course of seven to 10 days. Other symptoms can include:

  • Fluid-filled blisters
  • Burning or shooting pain
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Upset stomach

Shingles usually clears up between three to five weeks. You may first notice a burning or tingling pain, and sometime between one to five days after that pain, you will notice a red rash. The rash will turn into fluid-filled blisters which will dry up and crust over. After a couple of weeks, the scabs will clear up.

For @pzarks, he woke up to his case of shingles with a rash on his face. His Instagram post said that television commercials always showed shingles affecting older adults. "It can happen to anyone at any time," he said.

Risk Factors for Young Adults

Scientists aren't sure why some people go on to develop shingles and others don't. However, people with weakened immune systems, like those with HIV or lupus, are more likely to get a shingles rash. Also, research has shown a relationship between high levels of reported psychological stress and an increased risk of shingles. Thus, stress has the potential to be another risk factor for developing shingles.

Stress is the way your body reacts to things that are considered challenging or demanding. Stress can be positive or negative, depending on factors such as what your stressors are or how long you've been enduring the stress. However, too much stress can also weaken your immune system which can create an opportunity for shingles to show up.

@fromweightstoplaydates posted before and after photos from when she experienced shingles and Bell's palsy on her face at 32 years old. "What doctors couldn't see was the huge amount of stress I was experiencing," the poster said.

@catherine.ryan16 also noted stress as a factor in her shingles outbreak. She posted a photo of the rash extending up and across her abdomen.

Complications

There can be complications from shingles, such as long-term nerve pain—known as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN)—being the complication most people will experience. However, PHN will only affect 10 to 18% of people who have developed shingles—and it rarely affects those who are younger than 40.

Also, shingles that affect the areas of the eye or the eye itself may lead to eye problems such as blindness. The photo that @cherishlombard shared showed her severely swollen eye, which was captioned as the "worst pain ever."

Other rare complications of shingles could be pneumonia, hearing issues, encephalitis (brain inflammation), or death.

When sharing a photo of the shingles rash covering one-half of her face, @denisebullard_sharkey said to seek medical care as soon as possible. "If you wait too long you could end up with a severe case like mine," she said.

Treatment

For shingles, pain relief would be the main focus of treatment. Several treatment options are available and may be helpful for symptom relief, which could include:

  • Anti-itch creams or lotions
  • Wet compresses
  • Oatmeal baths
  • Pain medication (either prescription or over-the-counter)
  • Antiviral medication

There is a shingles vaccine, called Shingrix, that is available for preventing shingles. However, as of May 2022, the CDC recommends the vaccine for adults with weakened immune systems aged 19 or older, but in general, Shingrix has only been approved as a preventative measure for those aged 50 years and older.

It's important to note that you can transmit the shingles virus to someone else who has not had chickenpox, but the person will develop chickenpox and not shingles. It is also possible to experience shingles more than once.

A Quick Review

Ultimately, you may not expect to experience shingles at a young age—but being informed about the condition can help you deal with it if it occurs. If you notice symptoms like rash, blisters, or pain, don't hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider.

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Sources
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  4. National Institute on Aging. Shingles.

  5. Schmidt SAJ, Sørensen HT, Langan SM, Vestergaard M. Perceived psychological stress and risk of herpes zoster: a nationwide population-based cohort study. Br J Dermatol. 2021;185(1):130-138. doi:10.1111/bjd.19832

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