What is shingles? shingles

Shingles (zoster, herpes zoster) is a viral infection caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV), which also causes chickenpox.  After a person gets chickenpox, the virus stays inactive in their body and can reactivate later in life causing shingles. Normally, people who develop shingles will only have one episode, but a person can have it two or three times.  VZV is not the same as genital herpes.

How common is shingles?  Who is at risk?

About 33% of people will get shingles in their lifetime. Anybody can get shingles, but older adults are more likely to develop the infection. About half of shingles cases are in adults over the age of 60.  People at higher risk for shingles include people with weakened immune systems and those who take immunosuppressive drugs.

What are the symptoms of shingles?

Shingles causes a painful rash that develops on the face or the body.  It usually blisters and scabs over in 7-10 days and clears up within 2-4 weeks.  1-5 days before the rash appears, people will oftentimes have pain, itching, or tingling at the site of infection.  Shingles normally only infects one side of the body.  In more severe cases, it can cause eye damage.  Other symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Upset stomach

How is shingles transmitted?

Shingles cannot be passed from person-to-person, but VZV can be passed when a person comes into contact with the fluid of an infected person’s rash blisters.  In these cases, a person who has never had chickenpox can develop chickenpox, but they will not develop shingles. An infected person is contagious until their blisters crust over.

What complications are associated with shingles?

In some cases, shingles can lead to a disease called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), which causes severe pain at the site of the shingles rash even after the rash clears. The pain can be debilitating, but most people will recover within weeks or months.  In rare cases, PHN can last for years.  Up to 33% of untreated adults over the age of 60 will develop PHN from shingles.

Shingles can also lead to eye damage, pneumonia, hearing problems, encephalitis, blindness, or death, although these complications are rare.

How is shingles treated?

Several antiviral medications are available to help treat shingles. The medications can help reduce the severity and length of the disease but only if they are started as soon as the rash develops.  Pain medication, wet compresses, calamine lotion, and oatmeal baths can help sooth shingles rash.

How can shingles be prevented?

The only way to prevent shingles is to get vaccinated.  Doctors recommend that people over the age of 60 get one dose of the shingles vaccine.

How can I prevent spreading shingles?

If you have shingles:

  • Cover the rash
  • Do not touch or itch the rash
  • Wash your hands often to prevent spreading VZV
  • Avoid contact with unvaccinated pregnant women, babies, and people with weakened immune systems

For more information on shingles, click here.