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What You Need to Know About Shingles

Shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus — the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you’ve had chickenpox, the virus stays in your body for the rest of your life and can reactivate as shingles many years later.  It is not known what causes the virus to reactivate, it can happen to anyone who has had chickenpox, and it is very common.  About 1 out of every 3 people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime with an estimated 1 million people getting shingles each year in the U.S. 

Shingles causes a painful rash that can occur anywhere on the body.  Typically, it appears as a stripe of blisters on the trunk of the body, but it can also appear on the face.  If the rash appears on the face, it can be a serious cause for concern as it can affect the eyes and cause vision loss.

Patients who develop the rash may experience pain, burning or tingling, sensitivity to touch, fluid-filled blisters that break and crust over, and itching. Other symptoms patients may experience with shingles are fever, headache, chills, and an upset stomach.

Shingles can be very painful, and the pain can persist for months or even years after the rash goes away.  This condition is called postherpetic neuralgia and is the most common complication of shingles.

While shingles does not have a cure, it is generally not life threatening.  However, you should contact your health care provider as soon as possible if you suspect you have shingles-especially if you have the rash near an eye, or if you or someone in your household has a weakened immune system.  Your doctor may prescribe antiviral drugs to help speed your healing and reduce risks of complication.  They may also be able to prescribe medicine to help with pain.  The condition generally lasts between 2 and 6 weeks, and while most people get shingles only once it is possible to get it again.

Today there is a vaccine to help prevent shingles and minimize the effects of the virus.  The CDC recommends that adults 50 years and older get two doses of the shingles vaccine called Shingrix. Adults 19 years and older who have weakened immune systems because of disease or therapy should also get two doses of Shingrix, as they have a higher risk of getting shingles and related complications. In adults 50 years and older who have healthy immune systems, Shingrix is more than 90% effective at preventing shingles.  Your doctor or pharmacist can give you Shingrix as a shot in your upper arm.  If you have any questions or concerns, you should always speak with your provider before getting a vaccine.


Sources: Mayo Clinic and CDC