Who can get shingles?
The disease is primarily seen in the elderly, but occasionally occurs in younger individuals. It affects both sexes and all races with equal frequency and occurs sporadically throughout the year. Anyone who has had chicken pox can get shingles. That means almost anyone over the age of 5 could eventually get shingles. (A vaccine to prevent chicken pox became
available 5 years ago, so today's preschoolers who were vaccinated will possibly not have to worry about getting shingles.)
Shingles affects men and women and people of all races equally. Although shingles can affect adults at any age, the elderly and individuals with weakened immune systems are most susceptible to developing the condition. A woman who has active chickenpox or shingles within a few weeks of giving birth can pass the varicella zoster virus to her unborn infant. About one-third of babies who are exposed to the virus in this way go on to develop shingles before their 5th birthdays.
The varicella zoster virus that stays in the body after a case of chicken pox usually is kept inactive by the body's natural immune system. As people get older, their immune system naturally weakens to some germs, such as herpes zoster. Most people with shingles, therefore, are 65 years or older. Typically, but not always, shingles occurs in elderly people who are in some stressful situation. It is important to realize that just because a person develops shingles, the entire immune system is not necessarily having problems.
It has been estimated that at least one-half of the over-80 population will get shingles at some time. In addition to the elderly, other people with weakened immune systems who are at risk for developing shingles include people with HIV infection or AIDS, some patients with cancer (especially those receiving chemotherapy), transplant recipients, and people being treated with immunosuppressive drugs like corticosteroids.
Most people do not get shingles more than once: they develop immunity to the virus. However, about 1% to 5% of individuals will suffer a recurrence of shingles either in the original area on the body or a different area. Individuals may be most susceptible to recurrent attacks when they are run down or have a weakened immune system.