Shingles: Answers to Common Questions

Shingles: Answers to Common Questions

About 1 out of every 3 people in the US will develop shingles (herpes zoster) in their lifetime. If you’ve ever had chickenpox, you can get shingles, too.

“It may seem like a temporary inconvenience, but shingles can cause significant discomfort, as well as lead to serious complications, including nerve pain that can last for months or years after the rash goes away,” said Peter Christenson, DO, Lakeshore Health Partners – Family Medicine. “That’s why getting vaccinated is so important.”

Before we go into more specifics about vaccination, let’s go over some shingles basics:

What is shingles?

Shingles is caused by the chickenpox virus. Once you’ve had chickenpox, the virus stays inactive in nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. Years later, this same virus can reappear as shingles.

Shingles leads to a painful rash most often appearing as a stripe of blisters wrapping around the left or right side of your waistline. Sometimes the rash can develop around one eye, or on one side of the neck or face.

While not life threatening, shingles can be very painful and disruptive to your quality of life. 

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of shingles can include:

  • Burning, tingling or numbness of the skin
  • Feeling ill (chills, fever, upset stomach or headache)
  • Fluid-filled blisters
  • Skin that’s sensitive to the touch
  • Mild itching to severe pain
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Fatigue

Who’s at risk for shingles?

Anyone who’s ever had chickenpox is at risk of developing shingles. Other factors that may raise your risk include:

  • Age. People older than 50 are most likely to get shingles.
  • Having a weakened immune system from diseases like HIV/AIDS or cancer.
  • Undergoing treatment for cancer. Radiation or chemotherapy can lower your resistance to diseases and can trigger shingles.
  • Taking certain meds, such as steroids or drugs to prevent rejection of transplanted organs, can boost your risk.

Is shingles contagious?

A person who has shingles can pass the varicella-zoster virus to anyone who isn’t immune to chickenpox. This would likely occur through direct contact with the sores of the shingles rash. Until the blisters scab over, a person with shingles should avoid physical contact with anyone who hasn’t had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, especially those with weakened immune systems, pregnant women and newborns.

How is shingles treated?

Shingles isn’t curable, but there are several antiviral medications that can treat the blisters, and shorten the length and severity of the illness. If you suspect you have shingles, contact your doctor right away, as medicines are most effective if you start taking them as soon as possible after the rash appears.

Over-the-counter pain medicines may help alleviate shingles discomfort. Wet compresses, calamine lotion and colloidal oatmeal baths may help reduce itching.

What are the complications of shingles?

Complications from shingles can include:

  • Postherpetic neuralgia (lingering nerve pain after blisters have healed).
  • Vision loss. Shingles can form in or around the eye, causing painful infections that may cause vision loss.
  • Skin infections, if blisters aren’t properly treated.
  • Neurological problems, including encephalitis (brain inflammation), facial paralysis, or difficulty hearing or balancing.

Prevention is the Best Medicine

“The best way to combat shingles is to avoid getting it in the first place,” Dr. Christensen said. “Vaccination may not guarantee you won’t get shingles, but it will likely reduce the severity of the illness and lower your risk for complications. So if you’re 50 or above, talk to your doctor about vaccination.”

Currently, there are two shingles vaccines available: Zostavax and Shingrix. Designed for people 60 and older, Zostavax has been shown to offer protection against shingles for about five years. In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also approved the Shingrix vaccine, an alternative to Zostavax that’s recommended for people age 50 and up. Studies have suggested Shingrix delivers shingles protection beyond five years. A nonliving vaccine made of a virus component, Shingrix is given in two doses two to six months apart.

In your neighborhood and close to home, Lakeshore Health – Family Medicine is focused on your health and wellness—delivering comprehensive, compassionate care for infants, children and adults of all ages. Schedule an appointment.

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