Protecting yourself against shingles
Shingles can be tricky. That's my professional opinion. There are stories of people with a mild, hardly noticeable rash and there are horror stories of vision loss and excruciating pain lasting for years. The most common presentation of shingles is somewhere in between. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), one in three people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime.
What is shingles and why is it concerning?
First, some basics. Shingles is also known as herpes zoster. It is caused by varicella zoster, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Once you've had chickenpox—even if it was way back in kindergarten—forcing you to miss trick or treating that Halloween, the virus can lay sleeping in your nerves. When it wakes up, the result is shingles. Sometimes people don't even recall having had chickenpox. Notice the parallel I drew between the virus and Halloween. That was on purpose. Shingles can be scary.
Some people notice a tingling sensation on their skin before the shingles rash develops. The rash looks like a band of blisters and can occur anywhere on your body. However, shingles can also be more than just a rash. The most common complication that occurs is nerve pain that lasts well after the rash has cleared. This is called postherpetic neuralgia.
When shingles affects the eyes, it can lead to vision loss. The open sores related to the blisters can lead to skin infections. Very rarely, but most seriously, shingles can affect the brain. Look up images of the rash and you might be running to get a vaccine.
Protect yourself, even if you never had chickenpox.
The good news is there is a vaccine to protect you against shingles. It's recommended for people over the age of 50, and in some situations, even earlier. Currently, in the U.S., there is only one vaccine available—Shingrix. It is a series of two shots given two to six months apart. Generally, it's well tolerated, apart from mild flu-like symptoms for a few days.
The vaccine significantly decreases your chance of developing shingles, and more important, decreases your chances of developing postherpetic neuralgia. Even if you've had shingles before, can't remember if you've had chickenpox or received the older shingles vaccine, you can receive the shingles vaccine.
What should you do if you think you have shingles?
It is important to contact your provider right away if you think you may have symptoms of shingles—such as a rash, or tingling or “burning” nerve pain. If it’s within three days of developing the rash, your provider may prescribe antivirals, which can shorten the duration and severity of the shingles. While you’re waiting for your rash to heal, keep your skin clean and dry.
One of the most common questions I'm asked about shingles is whether the rash is contagious. The answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ You can't give someone else shingles. However, if someone who has not had chickenpox comes into direct contact with the open sores of your rash, they can develop chickenpox.
Unfortunately, there is no way to know if your old chickenpox is going to wake up and cause shingles. There is also no way to know if you'll be lucky enough to have a mild case or not. The best way to put luck on your side is to be vaccinated. If you are over the age of 50 and haven’t received your first or second dose of the shingles vaccine, schedule an appointment at a Ridgeview Clinic near you.
Dr. Hamza is board-certified in Internal Medicine. She sees adult patients for annual exams, illness care, and the diagnosis and treatment of chronic medical problems. Dr. Hamza works with patients to “find that balance in taking care of your health while still living your life.”