Shingles, also known as Zoster or Herpes Zoster, is a painful localized skin rash, often with blisters. The shingles rash usually appears on one side of the face or body and lasts from 2 to 4 weeks.
Shingles is caused by the Varicella Zoster Virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Only someone who has had chickenpox (or, rarely, received the chickenpox vaccine) can get shingles. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays in your body and goes dormant in the roots of the nerves. In some people, the virus stays that way, but for many others, the virus “wakes up” many years later and causes shingles.
Shingles is not unique to older adults and can be seen at any age in anyone who had chickenpox; however, shingles is much more common in people 50 years of age and older. The risk of the disease increases as a person gets older. Shingles is also more common in people whose immune systems are weakened because of a disease such as cancer, or drugs such as steroids or chemotherapy.
Almost 1 out of every 3 people in the United States will develop shingles, and there are an estimated 1 million cases of the disease each year in the U.S.
Shingles is a disease that occurs in stages. The first indication can be headaches and/or sensitivity to light. Many people complain of flu-like symptoms but don’t generally run the characteristic fever that accompanies the flu. The next stage usually includes itching, tingling and pain (sometimes severe) in the skin specific to a certain area, not all over the body. That area of skin will often develop a rash that will show as a band, strip or just an area of the skin usually only on one side of the body. This progresses to clusters of blisters which fill with fluid and then will crust over. The severity of the rash varies from person to person, and lasts from 2 to 4 weeks. Other symptoms of shingles can include fever, headache, chills and upset stomach. Very rarely, a shingles infection can lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation (encephalitits) or death.
For about 1 person in 5, severe pain can continue even long after the rash clears up. This is called post-herpetic neuralgia.
It is important to note that exposure to shingles will not cause you to get shingles. However, if you have not had chickenpox and you have not gotten the chickenpox vaccine, then you can get chickenpox by being exposed to shingles. It is also important to avoid contact with children who have not had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine if you have shingles. This avoids the potential of infecting them with chickenpox.
The CDC recommends a single dose of shingles (herpes zoster) vaccine for adults 60 years of age and older. People who have had shingles before should still get a dose of the vaccine. In clinical trials, the vaccine reduced the risk of shingles by 50%. It can also reduce pain in people who still get shingles after being vaccinated.
Important Note: The risk of hospitalization and death from chickenpox is increased in adults. Therefore, all adults who never received the varicella (chickenpox) vaccine and never had the chickenpox should consider getting vaccinated.