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Protecting Yourself From Shingles

"I wouldn't wish shingles on my worst enemy!" That's frequently the reaction of those who experience the pain of this common virus. Here's what you need to know to help prevent or treat the disease.

Shingles is a painful skin rash caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV). VZV is the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays in the body. Usually the virus does not cause any problems; however, the virus can reappear years later, causing shingles.

What does shingles look like?

Shingles usually begins as a rash on one side of the face or body. The rash starts as blisters that scab after three to five days. The rash usually clears within two to four weeks.

Before the rash develops, there is often pain, itching, or tingling in the area where the rash will develop. Other symptoms of shingles can include fever, headache, chills, and upset stomach.

Are there any long-term effects from shingles?

Very rarely, shingles can lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation (encephalitis), or death. For about one person in five, severe pain can continue even after the rash clears up. As people get older, they are more likely to develop this pain, and it is more likely to be severe.

How common is shingles in the United States?

In the United States, there are an estimated one million casesn of shingles each year.

Who gets shingles?

Anyone who has recovered from chickenpox may develop shingles, including children. But the risk increases as people age. It is most common in those 50 and older. The risk of getting shingles increases as a person gets older. People who have medical conditions that keep the immune system from working properly, like cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), or people who receive drugs that suppress the immune system, such as steroids and drugs given after organ transplantation, are also at greater risk.

How often can a person get shingles?

Most commonly, a person has only one episode of shingles in his or her lifetime. Although rare, a second or even third case of shingles can occur.

“Shingles usually begins as a rash on one side of the face or body. The rash starts as blisters that scab after three to five days.”

Can shingles be spread to others?

A person with shingles can spread the disease through direct contact with the rash when the rash is in the blister phase. Once the rash has developed crusts, the person is no longer contagious. A person cannot give the infection to others before blisters appear or with postherpetic neuralgia (pain after the rash is gone). The virus is not spread through sneezing, coughing, or casual contact.

The virus that causes shingles, VZV, can be spread from a person with active shingles to a person who has never had chickenpox through direct contact with the rash. The person exposed would develop chickenpox, not shingles.

To Find Out More

What can be done to prevent the spread of shingles?

The risk of spreading shingles is low if the rash is covered. People should keep their rashes covered, avoid touching and scratching, and wash their hands frequently to avoid spreading it.

Is there a treatment for shingles?

Several medicines, acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), and famciclovir (Famvir), are available to treat shingles. You should start medication as soon as possible after the rash appears. That will help shorten how long the illness lasts and how severe the illness is. Pain medicine may also help with pain caused by shingles. Call your health professional as soon as possible to discuss treatment options.

Fast Facts

  • Shingles is a painful, tingling skin rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox.
  • About 25 percent of all healthy adults will get shingles during their lifetimes, usually after age 40.
  • For people who have had chickenpox, shingles is not contagious. However, if you have never had chickenpox, contact with someone who has shingles could give you chickenpox. The fluid from their open blisters is infectious. Your healthcare provider may suggest giving you the chickenpox vaccine if you are exposed to someone with shingles.
  • The incidence increases with age, so that shingles is 10 times more likely to occur in adults over 60 than in children under 10.
  • People with weakened immune systems—from disease or use of medications that suppress the immune system—are at special risk of developing shingles.
  • Thanks to research funded by the NIH, there is now there is a vaccine called VZV (Zostavax) that can help prevent shingles in people 60 and older.
  • There are antiviral drugs that can help to lower the severity of shingles and shorten the length of time you have shingles.
shingles rash on the back of a neck

This type of rash is common in an outbreak of shingles.

Preventing and Treating

To Prevent Shingles—VZV Vaccine

The VZV (Zostavax) vaccine can help prevent shingles in people 60 and older.

To Treat Shingles—Antiviral Drugs

If you have shingles, there are antiviral drugs your healthcare provider can give you to help reduce the severity and shorten the time you have it. They include acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), and famciclovir (Famvir).

Read More "Shingles" Articles

Protecting Yourself From Shingles / "My Experience with Shingles."

Winter 2010 Issue: Volume 5 Number 1 Pages 16 - 17