A Childhood Virus Strikes Again

Shingles is one of the more painful conditions that can affect you as you get older. Also known as zoster or herpes zoster, it is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox and has no relation to the sexually transmitted genital herpes virus. It can develop in anyone who has already recovered from chicken pox, often striking after lying dormant for years — even decades. 

Who Gets Shingles
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are one million cases of shingles in the United States each year, about half of them in people over the age of 60. 

In addition to age, other factors that increase the risk for shingles include having a medical condition that weakens the immune system (such as HIV/AIDS and cancers such as leukemia) and taking immunosuppressant drugs (such as steroids or medications prescribed following organ transplantation).

What You Experience
The symptoms of shingles include a painful rash that covers one side of the face or body, often blistering and scabbing over. Before the rash appears, you may feel pain, itching or tingling for several days in the area affected by the virus. A fever, a headache, chills or an upset stomach may also accompany an outbreak. 

Is It Contagious?
While shingles itself cannot be transmitted to another person, the virus that causes shingles is contagious to people who have never had chicken pox. That is, those exposed to fluid from the blisters caused by shingles may develop chicken pox if they have never had this disease. The CDC recommends covering the rash to prevent contagion, along with frequent hand washing and not touching or scratching the rash. 

Women who are pregnant and who have never had chicken pox (or the chicken pox vaccine), people with weakened immune systems and low-birth-weight or premature infants should not be exposed to people with shingles blisters.

Complications, Treatment and Prevention
Often, shingles will clear up within two to four weeks. However, in some cases it may last much longer, even months. A common complication of the virus is that pain can persist in the affected areas even after the rash clears up. It can also cause vision problems if the rash touches the eyes. In rare cases, it can cause pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation or death. 

There are several medications that may help shorten the duration and severity of shingles if they’re taken soon after the rash appears. Pain medication may also provide relief, as can calamine lotion and wet compresses.

Most people who get shingles will only get it once. Some may have second or third outbreaks. The best way to prevent shingles is to get vaccinated, which the CDC recommends for anyone age 60 or older. Pharmacists in most states can provide the vaccine.