What is shingles?

Shingles is a common but preventable condition. Adults 19 and over who have certain immune conditions that increase their risk of shingles can also get the shingles vaccine.
Shingles is a common but preventable condition. Adults 19 and over who have certain immune conditions that increase their risk of shingles can also get the shingles vaccine.

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:

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.

QUESTION

Shingles is a painful rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. See Answer

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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Medically Reviewed on 6/27/2022
References
SOURCES:

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."