Shingles – What You Need to Know

Almost 1 out of every 3 people in the United States will develop shingles, also known as zoster or herpes zoster during their lifetime. In fact, there are an estimated 1 million cases of shingles each year in the United States. Anyone who has ever had chickenpox may develop shingles, including children; however, the risk increases as you get older. Most cases occur in men and women over the age of 60. People who receive immunosuppressive drugs or with an impaired immune system such as those with certain cancers and human immunodeficiency (HIV) are also at increased risk

Shingles is caused by varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays dormant in the body, residing in the nerve roots. For reasons that are not fully known, the virus can reactivate years later, causing shingles.

Shingles presents as a painful blistering rash, usually organized in a line or group and affecting just one side of the body. Blisters usually scab over in 7 to 10 days, and he’ll completely within 2 to 4 weeks.  A few days before the rash develops, people often have severe pain, itching, or tingling where the rash will appear. Other symptoms include fever, headache, chills, and upset stomach. For some people the pain can last for months or even years after the rash goes away. This long-lasting pain is called post-herpetic neuralgia, and it is the most common complication of shingles.

Shingles cannot be passed from one person to another; however it can be spread from a person with active shingles to someone who has never had chickenpox. In this case the exposed individual would develop chickenpox not shingles. The virus is spread through direct contact with fluid from the blisters. Once the rash develops crusts, the person is no longer contagious. If you have shingles, your healthcare provider will instruct you to keep the area covered, avoid touching or scratching the area, and wash your hands often. You should also avoid contact with pregnant women who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine, infants who have not yet been vaccinated, and people with weakened immune systems.

Prevention is key. The only way to reduce the risk of developing shingles is to get vaccinated. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends people 60 years and older be vaccinated. This is available in pharmacies and many physicians’ offices. People who develop shingles typically have only one episode in their lifetime. However, rarely a person can have a second or even a third episode.  This most commonly occurs in patients whose immune systems are weakened.  Therefore, even if you have had shingles, you can still receive the shingles vaccine to help prevent future occurrences of the disease

If you think you may have shingles, give us a call as quickly as possible. Several antiviral medications are available to treat shingles, but to be effective they should be started within 72 hours of the onset of the rash.

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