- What is shingles?
- Who gets shingles?
- What are the symptoms?
- Can shingles be spread to others?
- Are there any long-term effects or risk of complications?
- How often can a person get shingles?
- What can be done to prevent the spread of shingles?
- How is shingles treated?
Shingles is a painful skin rash caused by the varicella zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Once a person has chickenpox, the virus stays dormant in nerve endings and can be reactivated in the future.
Only people who have had chickenpox can get shingles. This happens when the otherwise dormant virus reactivates. The disease is most common in the elderly. However, anyone who has recovered from chickenpox may develop shingles, including children. People who have medical conditions that keep the immune system from working properly are more likely to get shingles.
The first sign is often a tingling feeling on the skin, itchiness or a stabbing pain. After several days, a rash appears. The rash starts as a band or patch or raised dots on the side of the trunk or face. Symptoms can range from mild itching to extreme and intense pain. The rash and pain usually disappear within three to five weeks. Other symptoms of shingles can include fever, headache, chills, and upset stomach. If you believe you have these symptoms, contact your doctor as soon as possible.
Shingles cannot be passed from one person to another. It is not spread through sneezing, coughing or casual contact. However, the virus from a person with shingles may cause chickenpox in someone who has not had it before. The virus is present at the site of the rash, and is contagious for a week after the appearance of lesions (blisters).
Shingles is not usually dangerous to healthy people, but it can cause great misery during an attack. Anyone with shingles on their face, no matter how mild, should seek medical care. Very rarely, shingles can lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation (encephalitis) or death.
Most commonly, a person has only one episode of shingles in her or his lifetime. Although rare, a second or even third case of shingles can occur, and people with impaired immune systems are at higher risk of repeat attacks.
The risk of spreading shingles is low if the rash is covered. People with shingles should keep the rash covered with a clean, soft cloth, not touch or scratch the rash, and wash their hands often to prevent the spread of the virus. Once the rash has completely crusted over, the person is no longer contagious.
Several medicines, acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), and famciclovir (Famvir), are available to treat shingles. Treatment should be started as soon as possible after the rash appears, to help shorten how long the illness lasts and how severe the illness is. Pain medicine may also help lessen discomfort. Call your health care provider to discuss treatment choices.
Yes. Shingles vaccine was recently recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to reduce the risk of shingles and pain from shingles in people 60 years old or older.
Older adults are most affected by shingles. People age 60 or older should be vaccinated to reduce the risk of shingles and pain from shingles.
Some people should not get shingles vaccine, or should wait.
A person should not get shingles vaccine who:
- has ever had a life-threatening allergic reaction to gelatin, the antibiotic neomycin, or any other component of shingles vaccine. Tell your health care provider if you have any severe allergies.
- has a weakened immune system because of: HIV, AIDS or another disease that affects the immune system.
- is being treated with drugs that affect the immune system - such as steroids, or cancer treatment such as radiation or chemotherapy.
- has a history of cancer affecting the bone marrow or lymphatic system, such as leukemia or lymphoma.
- has active, untreated tuberculosis.
- is pregnant, or might be pregnant. Women should not become pregnant until at least three months after getting shingles vaccine.
Someone with a minor illness, such as a cold, may be vaccinated. But anyone who is moderately or severely ill should usually wait until they recover before getting the vaccine.
Severe side effects from receiving shingles vaccine are not common.
Mild symptoms following vaccination may include: redness, soreness, swelling, or itching at the site of the injection (about one person in three); Headache (about one person in 70).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention