If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please call 911 or seek care at an emergency room.
By Brendan Furlong, MD, Chief of Service, Emergency Department, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital
No kidding around—shingles is a painful and sometimes serious illness that affects nearly 1 million people in the U.S., mainly adults, each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Understanding what causes the virus, its symptoms and how to prevent it can help protect you and your loved ones.
A Common Illness
Also known as zoster or herpes zoster, shingles is caused by a reactivation of the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox in children. For reasons that we don’t well know, the virus can stay dormant long after a person recovers from chickenpox and then reappear years later, causing shingles.
Those infected with the shingles virus experience symptoms such as:
- A rash, appearing on one side of the face or body, formed in a single stripe or cluster, or more widespread, similar to chickenpox
- Blisters that scab over in about a week’s time
- Pain or an itching and tingling sensation beginning a few days before the rash appears
- Fever, chills, headache and upset stomach
If you think you might have shingles, call your healthcare provider as soon as possible to discuss treatment options before symptoms worsen.
A common complication of shingles is a condition called post-herpetic neuralgia, or PHN, which causes extreme pain in the area of the body affected by the rash. Pain from PHN can be debilitating at times, often lingering long after the rash has cleared up. It usually subsides in about a month. Shingles can also lead to more serious complications in some cases, such as eye and hearing problems, pneumonia, inflammation of the brain and even death.
Antiviral medicines are available to help shorten the length and severity of the illness. An analgesic, or painkiller, along with wet compresses, calamine lotion and colloidal oatmeal baths, may help to relieve pain and itching.
Shingles is very common, and anyone who has had chickenpox, including children, is at risk. Shingles can appear at any point in a person’s life, sometimes more than once. The CDC estimates that half of all people living to age 85 will develop it, and about half of all cases occur in men and women aged 60 years or older.
People with compromised immune systems, such as cancer and HIV patients, and patients taking immunosuppressants following an organ transplant, also have a higher risk of developing shingles.
Shingles cannot be passed from one person to another. However, a person with active lesions can spread the varicella virus to another person who has never had chickenpox or received the vaccination. This can cause the exposed person to develop primary chickenpox, which can be very dangerous, especially for those who are pregnant or are immunocompromised.
The most effective way to reduce your risk of developing shingles is to get vaccinated. The CDC recommends that people aged 60 years and older receive one dose of the shingles vaccine. People who have already had shingles can also get the vaccine to prevent future occurrences. Talk with your healthcare professional before getting the shingles vaccine.