Shingles is a painful skin rash caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays in the body, and usually does not cause any problems; however, the virus can reappear years later, resulting in shingles. About 25 percent of all healthy adults will get shingles during their lifetimes, usually after age 40.
What does shingles look like? Shingles usually begins as a rash on one side of the face or body. The rash starts as blisters that scab after three to five days. The rash usually clears within two to four weeks.
Before the rash develops, there is often pain, itching, or tingling in the area where the rash will develop. Other symptoms of shingles can include fever, headache, chills, and upset stomach.
Are there any long-term effects from shingles? Very rarely, shingles can lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation (encephalitis), or death. For about one person in five, severe pain can continue even after the rash clears up. As people get older, they are more likely to develop this pain, and it is more likely to be severe.
In the United States, there are an estimated 1,000,000 cases of shingles each year.
Who gets shingles? Anyone who has recovered from chickenpox may develop shingles, including children. But the risk increases as people age. It is most common in those 50 and older, and the risk of getting shingles increases as a person gets older. People who have medical conditions that keep the immune system from working properly, like cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), or people who receive drugs that suppress the immune system, such as steroids and drugs given after organ transplantation, are also at greater risk.
How often can a person get shingles? Most commonly, a person has only one episode of shingles in his or her lifetime. Although rare, a second or even third case of shingles can occur.
Can shingles be spread to others? A person with shingles is contagious to someone who has not had chickenpox through direct contact with the rash when the rash is in the blister phase. Once the rash has developed crusts, the person is no longer contagious. A person cannot spread the virus before blisters appear or with postherpetic neuralgia (pain after the rash is gone), and the virus is not spread through sneezing, coughing, or casual contact.
While the virus that causes shingles, can be spread from a person with active shingles to a person who has never had chickenpox through direct contact with the rash, the person exposed would develop chickenpox, not shingles.
What can be done to prevent the spread of the shingles virus? The risk of spreading the shingles virus is low if the rash is covered. People should keep their rashes covered, avoid touching and scratching, and wash their hands frequently to avoid spreading it.
Is there a treatment for shingles? Several medicines, acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), and famciclovir (Famvir), are available to treat shingles. You should start medication as soon as possible after the rash appears. That will help shorten the time the illness lasts and how severe the illness is. Pain medicine may also help with pain caused by shingles. Call your health professional as soon as possible to discuss treatment options.
Can shingles be prevented?
Thanks to research funded by the National Institutes of Health, there is now a vaccine called VZV (Zostavax) that can help prevent shingles in people 60 and older.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that anyone, 60 or older get the shingles vaccine (Zostavax), even if they have had shingles before. Although the vaccine is also approved for use in people ages 50 to 59 years, at this time the CDC isn’t recommending the shingles vaccine until you reach age 60.
The shingles vaccine does come with some side effects, so as with any medication, check with your primary care physician before getting the vaccine.
The shingles vaccine is not inexpensive. Coverage for the vaccine is not provided by all private insurance carriers and may not be covered under Medicare. Often reimbursement depends on how the claim for the vaccine is filed. To be sure check, with your insurance company and healthcare provider.
Source: The National Institutes of Health MedlinePlus