Can Stress Cause Shingles?

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Shingles, also called herpes zoster, is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox (varicella-zoster virus, or VZV). Unlike chickenpox, shingles isn't contagious, but it can occur when the VZV is reactivated in the body. Though inconclusive, stress may be a trigger that reactivates the virus. Common symptoms include painful, tingling blisters that occur in clusters on your face or torso.

In the United States, about one out of three people will develop shingles in their lifetime. Getting the shingles vaccine can reduce your risk of developing the condition.

Read on to learn more about shingles, including the cause, risk factors, and its relationship with stress.

Stressed person holding the bridge of their nose with their eyes closed while sitting on a couch

Nattakorn Maneerat / Getty Images

What Causes Shingles?

Shingles is caused by the reactivation of VZV, the virus that causes chickenpox. After you are infected with the virus, it remains inactive in your body. Reactivation later in life can occur due to changes in your immune system.

Risk Factors for Shingles

Shingles can develop in anyone who has previously had chickenpox. However, an increased risk for shingles is associated with immune system weakness and function.

Factors that influence your immune system and can increase your risk include:

  • Being over the age of 60
  • Having certain conditions or infections, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or cancer
  • Taking immunosuppressive treatments and medications, such as those for organ transplants or rheumatoid arthritis

The Link Between Stress and Shingles

Psychological stress is a possible trigger for shingles. Experiencing acute (short-term but significant) stress or chronic (long-term) stress has been shown to impact immune function. But it does not occur in the same way for every person.

Further, results from studies exploring the connection between stress and developing shingles have been mixed. Some studies reported higher rates of shingles following stressful life events, while others did not. Studies examining the impact of stress on the immune system and reactivation of VZV did not conclude a definitive relationship between the two.

Treatment for Shingles

Treatment for shingles is meant to reduce severity and duration of symptoms. It often includes:

  • Antiviral medications, such as Zovirax (acyclovir), Famvir (famciclovir), and Valtrex (valacyclovir)
  • Pain medications, including over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription options
  • Antibiotics if the blisters or lesions become infected

Stress Management Tips

Stress can increase the risk for inflammation in the body. In turn, this can contribute to the development of disease and make other preexisting conditions worse. Taking action to better cope with stress reduces that risk.

Some short- and long-term stress coping strategies include:

  • Being thoughtful about engaging with people and situations that are stressful: This may include declining invitations or saying "no" when you can anticipate stressful conditions.
  • Reframing a stressful situation: If you can't avoid a situation, you may be able to perceive it differently. For example, looking at a rejection for a job you wanted as an opportunity to learn from it can help you see the situation in a positive way.
  • Regularly engaging in relaxation: Do activities you know you like or try a new one, such as deep breathing, stretching, yoga, or tai chi.
  • Doing enjoyable activities when you're stressed: Reading books, engaging in a hobby, watching a favorite television show or movie, or spending time with friends and family are great ways to cope.
  • Talking it out with others: This includes with someone close to you or a mental health professional.
  • Taking care of your body: Regularly getting enough quality rest, being active, and eating enough nutrients helps your body better cope with stress.

Summary

Shingles (herpes zoster) is caused by the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Unlike with chickenpox, shingles transmission from one person to another isn't possible. People with reduced immunity are at a higher risk for shingles, such as those who are over the age of 60, have certain health conditions, or are undergoing immunosuppressive treatments.

Psychological stress is thought to be a potential trigger for the reactivation of VZV in the body. However, research into whether stress triggers shingles is not conclusive. Stress can cause inflammation and worsen existing health conditions. Stress management strategies may help reduce the risk of negative health impacts.

A Word From Verywell

Though people with compromised immune systems are at a higher risk for shingles, anyone who has previously been exposed to VZV may develop it sometime in their life. Taking good care of your body is not only a healthy stress coping strategy, but it may also support your immune system. Further, getting vaccinations, such as the shingles vaccine (when recommended), is also a great way to reduce your risk of illness, complications, and can keep you healthy.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is the varicella zoster virus contagious?

    The virus itself is contagious but shingles can't be transmitted to another person. Varicella-zoster virus causes chickenpox. After chickenpox resolves, the virus remains in the body but becomes inactive. If it reactivates, it can cause shingles. During a shingles episode, you can transmit the virus to someone who hasn't been exposed previously and it can cause chickenpox.

  • At what age are you more likely to get shingles?

    People over the age of 60 are more likely to develop shingles. The risk increases as you get older and anyone who has previously had chickenpox is at risk for it.

  • How do you know if you have shingles or something else?

    Shingles is typically diagnosed by observing a characteristic rash with clusters of painful blisters on one side of your face or torso. If the cause is uncertain, a healthcare provider can take a fluid sample from one of the blisters to confirm the cause.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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