The facts (and just the facts) about shingles

One in three Americans will develop shingles in their lifetime, but how much do you know about this common condition? While it’s common, it’s also largely preventable — and a new vaccine may make it even more preventable.

Read on for answers to some frequently asked questions about the infection.

What exactly is shingles?

Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. The infection is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Shingles appears as blister-like sores that are often accompanied by severe itchiness. In some cases, the rash also causes severe pain and burning. Shingles typically:

  • Occurs on one side of the body — often on the face or torso
  • Is accompanied by a fever, headache, chills and an upset stomach
  • Lasts a couple of weeks to a month, but has been known to persist for months or years

Can you get the virus twice?

As children, we were told chickenpox was a one-and-done illness. But the truth is, once you have the virus that causes chickenpox, it stays in your system your entire life. For adults, the virus can reappear as shingles, especially for those who have a weak immune system, endure a lot of stress or take certain medications. In fact, adults can get shingles more than once.

How do you “catch” shingles?

Contrary to popular thought, you can’t get shingles from someone who has it. However, you can get shingles from someone who has chickenpox. For this to happen, you must have had chickenpox before — or traces of the varicella virus from receiving the chickenpox immunization. If you’ve merely had the immunization, the chance of getting shingles is much lower and symptoms would be milder.

As a side note: People with shingles can trigger chickenpox in adults and children. So it’s important to contain the virus if you are unsure whether someone has had chickenpox or the varicella vaccine.

Can you prevent shingles?

You can’t prevent shingles entirely, but you can decrease your chances of contracting the condition by getting the shingles vaccine. The one-time vaccine was previously recommended only in adults age 60 and older. However, the FDA recently approved a new shingles vaccine that’s broader in scope.

The new vaccine, called Shingrix, is recommended for adults age 50 and older, including those who have previously been vaccinated with Zostavax. This vaccine is now the preferred vaccine for preventing shingles and its related complications — and may prevent shingles in up to 90 percent of people.

How is shingles treated?

There are numerous medications to treat shingles symptoms and speed healing, including topical creams and antiviral drugs. If you suspect you or a loved one has shingles or is at risk for shingles, consult your doctor to determine the best course of action.

Think you may have shingles or need a shingles vaccine? Your primary care doctor can help. Don’t have one? Find one at Erlanger Primary Care East.