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Shingles (Herpes Zoster) FAQs

Reviewed by , on February 18, 2016

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Q:Shingles is a painful rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. True or false?

A:True. Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV), which is the same virus that causes chickenpox.

Also called herpes zoster, shingles is a common illness that causes a painful skin rash, and anyone who has had chickenpox or received the chickenpox vaccine can develop it. About one third of people in the U.S. will get shingles in their lifetime, and the risk increases as we age. Nearly half of the cases of shingles are diagnosed in adults aged 60 and older.

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Q:What are early symptoms and signs of shingles?

A:Early symptoms and signs of shingles include burning, itching, tingling, or sensitive skin for up to three days.

Following these skin sensations, a rash may appear in the same area, which will develop into groups of clear blisters. These blisters will become yellow and sometimes bloody, and then scab before healing, which takes 2 to 3 weeks.

Shingles blisters are usually very painful, and often require prescription painkillers. The pain usually will diminish as blisters heal; however, it can still last for months. Pain that continues after the blisters have healed is called post-herpetic neuralgia, a common complication of shingles.

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Q:Is shingles contagious?

A:Yes, shingles is contagious, and is spread from person-to-person through direct contact with the fluid from the blisters.

When shingles is active and rash and blisters are present, the virus can spread. A person is not contagious before the rash appears and after the blisters have developed crusts.

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Q:What is the treatment for shingles?

A:Acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir are the most commonly used drugs to treat shingles, and they can help shorten the duration of the illness and the severity of the symptoms.

They are most effective when started immediately after the rash appears. If you think you have shingles, see a doctor as soon as possible to talk about treatments so you can get started on antiviral medications right away if needed. Analgesics may also be prescribed to treat the pain caused by the shingles.

Home remedies can be used in addition to medical treatments to help ease symptoms. These include wet compresses, calamine lotion, and colloidal oatmeal baths.

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Q:What is the most common complication of shingles?

A:Nerve pain is the most common complication of shingles. The medical term for this pain is postherpetic neuralgia.

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Q:Is there a shingles vaccine available?

A:Yes. The shingles vaccine is recommended for all adults age 60 and older, regardless of whether they remember if they had chickenpox or not.

More than 99% of Americans have had chickenpox by the time they are 40 years old, so even if you don't recall having chickenpox, it is likely you did.

Even if you have already had a bout of shingles, the vaccine is still recommended as it can help prevent future outbreaks of the disease. The vaccine can be given as soon as the previous shingles rash has gone away. Talk to your doctor about when to get vaccinated.

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Q:Can you get shingles more than once?

A:Yes. Most people who develop shingles only get it once, but it is possible to have repeated outbreaks of the illness.

Those at higher risk for developing shingles include people with compromised immune systems including people with cancer, HIV/AIDS, people taking immunosuppressive medications such as steroids or chemotherapy, and those who have received organ transplants.

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