What is shingles?
Shingles is a common but preventable condition.
Around a million people develop shingles every year. They may experience an unsightly rash, pain, and itching for weeks on end. In some cases, people have symptoms that last for months or years after the rash has cleared up.
Fortunately, there is a vaccine that will prevent shingles. It is currently approved primarily for people over the age of 50. People 19 years or older who have certain immune conditions are also eligible to get the vaccine, though.
Choosing to get the shingles vaccine can prevent significant discomfort and may reduce your chances of serious health complications.
Shingles is another name for herpes zoster, an illness caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Once you get chickenpox, the virus never leaves your system. It sits dormant in some of your cells. The virus can then get reactivated years later and cause shingles instead of a recurrence of chickenpox.
Experts don’t fully understand what reactivates the virus. It manifests most commonly in older adults, but teens and young adults can also develop shingles. Your risk of shingles is higher if you have an immune condition such as HIV, a history of cancer, or a prescription for medications such as anti-rejection drugs after an organ transplant.
Experts estimate that 1 in 3 people who have had chickenpox in the past will get shingles as an adult.
Symptoms of shingles
Shingles usually causes a painful skin rash. It typically appears on one side of your body or face, but it can also be more widespread. Symptoms may include:
- Burning, shooting pain
- Fluid-filled blisters
- Tingling, itching, or numbness of the skin
- Upset stomach
Some people report only mild discomfort from shingles. Others suffer severe pain and itching from the rash. The symptoms of shingles can last from 3 to 4 weeks, and complications can last for months.
Initially, a shingles rash is reddish, with raised bumps. The rash will later become blistered, and then the blisters will burst and crust over. It may take several weeks for the rash to heal completely.
Complications from shingles
If you have a shingles rash on the face, you are at risk for long-term complications. Shingles can cause permanent damage to your vision or hearing if it affects your ears or eyes. Some people experience facial paralysis from shingles. If you have shingles on your face, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.
In rare cases, shingles can lead to severe complications such as pneumonia, encephalitis, or meningitis. This is a medical emergency, and you should seek treatment immediately. You will need to be hospitalized for treatment.
One in 10 people who have shingles experience lasting pain in the area where the rash appeared. This is called postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN. It is the most common complication of the virus.
PHN can last for months or years, and there is no effective treatment for it other than medicine to help reduce pain. The pain may interfere with daily life and lead to mental health symptoms such as depression as well.
Who is a candidate for the shingles vaccine?
There is a safe and effective vaccine to prevent shingles. The Shingrix vaccine was initially approved in 2017 for adults over 50. This vaccine is more effective than a previous shingles vaccine called Zostavax. Zostavax was less effective at preventing shingles, and it lost effectiveness after five years. It is no longer available in the United States.
Shingrix is more than 90% effective at preventing shingles and postherpetic neuralgia. Experts recommend that people over 50 get this vaccine. It requires two doses, administered 2-6 months apart. You can have the vaccine even if you previously had the Zostavax shot.
If you have had shingles in the past, you can still get the shot. You should not receive the vaccine, though, if you currently have shingles. Ask your doctor how long to wait after an active case of shingles before getting the vaccine.
Adults 19 and over who have certain immune conditions that increase their risk of shingles can also get the shingles vaccine. Qualifying conditions include:
- Stem cell transplant recipients
- Organ transplant recipients
- People undergoing cancer treatment
- People with HIV
- People with autoimmune and inflammatory conditions
If you have any qualifying conditions, talk to your doctor about getting a shingles vaccine.
Why should you prevent shingles?
There are very few treatments for shingles. The antiviral medications acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir are all approved for shingles, but they can’t cure the virus. Instead, they shorten the length of time you will have symptoms, and they may reduce the severity of your symptoms. You need to start taking these medications as close to the onset of shingles as possible for them to be effective.
If you get shingles, it may result in debilitating complications. PNH can last for years after the other symptoms have gone away. The pain can make daily tasks of living difficult or impossible. The pain may fade with time, but there is no treatment to eliminate it.
It is possible to get shingles more than once. The vaccine, though, will prevent recurrences of the virus.
Additionally, while it is uncommon, it is possible to pass shingles to another person. If someone who does not have prior immunity to the varicella-zoster virus comes in contact with the fluid from shingles blisters, they are at risk of contracting chickenpox. Chickenpox then puts them at risk of developing shingles later in life. This is a particular consideration for people who spend time around children who have not had chickenpox or have not completed the chickenpox vaccine series.
If you get shingles, it is wise to cover your rash. This can prevent the fluid from touching other people or surfaces. Do not share towels or bedding with someone who is not immunized against the varicella-zoster virus.
You can talk to your doctor about whether you are eligible for the shingles vaccine. They will help you decide if it’s right for you.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "About Shingles (Herpes Zoster)." "Clinical Considerations for Use of Recombinant Zoster Vaccine (RZV, Shingrix) in Immunocompromised Adults Aged =19 Years."}. "Shingles (Herpes Zoster)." "Shingles Vaccination."
Harvard Health Publishing: "Should I get the new shingles vaccine?"
National Institute on Aging: "Shingles."
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Can You Get Shingles After Being Vaccinated?Shingles is a viral infection. It presents with a rash followed by an episode of intense pain in the infected area. This is caused by the virus called varicella zoster. This virus also causes chickenpox. If a child has had chickenpox, the virus may not completely go away, lie dormant in the body and come back years later as shingles. Older individuals and immunocompromised individuals are more likely to develop shingles.
Can You Get Shingles If You Have Had Chickenpox?Yes, you can get shingles if you have had chickenpox in the past. Learn about risk factors, symptoms, and who should get the Shingrix vaccine.
How Long Is Shingles Contagious?Shingles is contagious from the time the blisters are oozing until the time the blisters have scabbed.
How Much Does a Shingles Shot Usually Cost?Depending on your medical insurance plan, the full price for two doses of the shingles vaccine could cost around $324 or less.
Is Shingles Contagious?Shingles is an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. Shingles symptoms and signs include skin burning, numbness, and tingling along with a painful red, blistering rash. Shingles is contagious until all of the blisters have crusted over.
Shingles (Herpes Zoster)Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a painful rash caused by the varicella zoster virus. Other shingles symptoms include headache, fever, nausea, and body aches. Treatment focuses on pain management and shortening the duration of the illness with antiviral medications.
Shingles QuizShingles falls within a well-known family of viruses that cause itching, burning, blisters, and pain. Take the Shingles Quiz to get the facts, causes, symptoms, and treatments for this itchy, painful condition.
What Happens When You Get Shingles When Pregnant?Becoming infected with chickenpox during pregnancy could cause birth defects in your unborn child. Likewise, shingles could also cause problems for your unborn child. If you are pregnant and haven't had chickenpox, avoid exposure to infected people. Zostavax, the shingles vaccine, can reduce the incidence of shingles by half. Women should wait at least three months after receiving the vaccine before trying to get pregnant.
ShinglesShingles occurs when the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox, re-emerges due to a weakened immune system. Tingling may occur before herpes zoster blisters appear, usually on the side of the body. The shingles vaccine can boost the immune system to lower the risk of shingles outbreaks.
Shingles Myths and FactsThere are some common misconceptions about this viral illness and the uncomfortable rash it can cause. Here's a guide through the myths and facts of shingles.
What Does a Shingles Rash Look Like at First?The typical shingles red rash or blisters occur after pain, itching, and tingling. They are usually limited to one side of the face and body.
What Triggers a Shingles Outbreak?Shingles occur when the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus responsible for chickenpox, reactivates in the body, usually due to a weakened immune system. Learn about the symptoms of shingles and how you can treat them. The difference between chickenpox and shingles is that the first time you get infected with the varicella virus, you get chickenpox. Shingles is a condition you can develop if you've already had chickenpox. Learn about the differences between chickenpox and shingles and how these two diseases are connected.
Why You Shouldn't Get the Shingles VaccineShingles activates when your immunity is low, usually with advancing age. But not everyone who is a candidate for the shingles vaccine should take it.