Shingles Demystified

It’s like a bad sequel: Revenge of the Chickenpox. Each year, more than one million Americans get shingles. Varicella zoster virus (VZV) is the same virus that causes both shingles and chickenpox. Shingles appears as a painful rash that can damage the nerves where it resides. For people who contracted chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in the nerve tissue. For most, it remains dormant, but in some “lucky” people, the virus reactivates, which causes shingles to occur.

Who is Vulnerable to Shingles?

While any adult who has previously had chickenpox can develop shingles, it is most common in adults over 50 and especially those with weakened immune systems.

Symptoms

For those who contract shingles, the initial symptoms are sudden and painful. Shingles usually appears initially with an itching or burning sensation in the skin followed by severe pain. You may also suffer from a fever, and rashes will develop on one side of the body. After a few days, blisters will form in the rashes, often along the chest and back, though some people may develop a rash on the face.

When the virus is activated, it becomes contagious. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the best ways to prevent spreading shingles include:

  • Cover the rash.
  • Don’t touch the rash.
  • Wash hands frequently.
  • Avoid contact with pregnant women who have never had chicken pox or the vaccine and people with weakened immune symptoms.

Complications

For some people who contract shingles, there may be further complications. Because the nerves are affected, there may be a persistent pain that lasts for months, even years after the rash has faded away. Those who suffer from rashes on the face may have retinal damage, facial paralysis and pain inside the ear. In some cases, the virus spreads to other parts of the body through the bloodstream and causes more nerve damage.

Treatments

For those who react to the symptoms within the first three days, there are antiviral medications that can reduce the effect of shingles. For those who have weakened immune systems or who wait too long, the antiviral medications may not be as effective.

However, there are vaccines which help prevent shingles from occurring. It is recommended that all adults over 50 get vaccinated. Receiving protection from shingles through vaccination may save a considerable amount of pain and complications from shingles.

Need vaccination?

Speak with your primary care provider about a shingles vaccine at your next checkup.

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