Varicella zoster is a highly-infectious virus. It enters through the respiratory tract and from there it will spread all over the body. It can also infect the nervous system. The resulting symptoms are a bout of chickenpox.
Many people think that having chickenpox is a one-time disease, and that once caught, confers lifetime immunity from a re-occurrence. However, while chickenpox may not recur, the causative virus does not totally leave the body.
Prior to the body’s defenses overcoming the virus, the varicella-zoster virus which causes chicken pox will manage to survive in the body and may reactivate later in life. If it does awaken, it doesn’t cause another episode of chickenpox. Next time, and any times after that, it causes an outbreak of shingles.
What Happens to VZV Once You Recover from Chickenpox
This virus enters into clusters of nerve cells in the head and along the spinal cord. Once an individual recovers from chickenpox, the virus will remain dormant in these nerve cells, also called “ganglia”.
Unlike other viruses such as the poliovirus and the common cold virus, the varicella-zoster virus can successfully hide within the nerve cells. They adapt so well that they are able to escape detection by the destructive responses of the immune system.
Dormant Virus to Shingles
People who have had chickenpox or its vaccine are subject to the possibility of experiencing shingles later in life. If the dormant virus is reactivated it will start to multiply. The antibodies left in your system from your chickenpox bout are supposed to neutralize these viruses.
However, the body’s immune system is not at its best, the antibodies may not be strong enough to stop the virus from reproducing. As a result, the viruses will keep on multiplying in the sensory nerve clusters. It then spreads down your nerves, affecting your skin. You will then experience a painful and tingling skin rash.
The Difference between Chickenpox and Shingles
Although chickenpox and shingles are caused by the same virus they affect the body in different ways. When you have chickenpox, your body will suffer from its widespread infection. The subsequent rash can appear all over the body.
While chicken pox exposes the person to a lot of itching, shingles will more likely make the person feel more of tingling or stabbing pain, not just itching.
If you contract shingles, you will only have a rash on specific areas of the body. This is because the viruses is reactivated in a way that only those specific cluster of nerves are affected. Where it appears on your body depends on where in your spinal column the virus has parked itself.
The affected area is that which is affected by the nerve network that radiates from where the virus is lodged. In most cases, shingles only affect the face or the chest. If a person is subject to re-occurrences of shingles, their affected area is usually the same as previous events.
However, it not unknown for the rash to appear in a different place. When this happens, it is believed that the virus has re-established itself in a different spinal position.
The Symptoms of Shingles
Shingles will usually start with itching and tingling sensations, sometimes accompanied by stabbing pain. The skin of the torso and face are among the most commonly affected areas. After a few days, a rash will start to appear. These rashes look like fluid-filled blisters which are very much similar to chicken pox.
These blisters will later dry out and turn into crusts. During the early stages of shingles the person may feel intense pain even when no blisters are present yet. This is the reason why some cases of shingles are wrongfully diagnosed at first as pulled muscles.
Different people can experience shingles differently. Some may experience the rash in a tiny area of only a few blisters, yet still have all the other discomforts. Others may have a rash over a large area. The shingles rash generally affects only one side of the body. Again, this relates to where the virus is located in the spine.
Shingles will usually last from three to five weeks. Since shingles is technically a viral infection, the person can also suffer from fatigue, chills, fever and muscle aches.
Who is at Risk of Shingles?
To date, experts are not yet hundred percent sure of what triggers the reactivation of the varicella virus. But, in most cases shingles affects those who have decreased immunity. Older adults whose immune system response declines as they age are more likely to suffer from shingles.
Exposure to excessive physical and emotional stress is known to increase the risk of a shingles outbreak. If you are diagnosed with shingles, it means that your immune system is in a weakened state.
Those who are diagnosed with cancer, kidney and lung disease also face a higher risk of experiencing shingles. A person’s risk of shingles increases dramatically once they reach the age of 50. This risk increases by as much as 40 percent in every decade that follows.
How Stress Triggers VZV Outbreak
All forms of stressors affect the functional interaction of both the immune system and the central nervous system. The severity of immune dysfunction depends on the duration and frequency of the stress response. Stressors trigger the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and catecholamines.
Unfortunately, the persistent existence of these stress hormones in the body further depresses the immune system. Suffering from diseases that cause chronic and severe pain also triggers the reactivation of VZV. This is because chronic pain also brings with it emotional distress.
Stress related trauma and surgery can also cause the reactivation of VZV. Psychological stress is another factor that contributes to the likelihood of a VZV outbreak. A lack of social support from friends, family or spouse can be the underlying cause of distresses upon a person’s psychological wellbeing.
Research shows that people who had a herpes zoster outbreak had often undergone a negative life event two to six months prior to the onset of VZV outbreak.
Why Stressed Individuals Are More Prone to VZV Outbreak
People who are under a lot of stress often find it hard to sleep well at night. They are also more prone to unhealthy eating habits as their way of coping with stress. Worse, when many people are stressed out that they tend to resort to increased levels of harmful vices such as drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.
Although these substances can have a very temporary ability to mask the problems causing the stress, they all further negatively impact the immune system, thus increasing their likelihood of having VZV outbreak.