You may have heard that if you have had chickenpox, you are at risk of getting shingles. But what are shingles and what are the other risks in developing them?
A surprising one million cases of shingles occur in the United States every year. Though it mostly affects people over the age of 40, it can develop in anyone, including children. One out of two people who live to age 85 will get a case of shingles.
Shingles (herpes zoster) is an outbreak of rash or blisters on the skin that is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox — the varicella-zoster virus.
Symptoms and stages of shingles:
- Burning or tingling pain (which can be severe).
- Numbness or itching, usually on one side of the body.
- Two to three days after the pain begins, small bumps and strips of inflamed patches across the back, around the waist, and sometimes near the eye will appear.
- Three to five days later, a rash or fluid-filled blisters (similar to chickenpox) appears on one side or area of the body.
- Two to three weeks later the blisters fill with pus, break open, and crust over.
- At week four to five, the crusts fall off, the pain and itching stop, and the blisters begin to heal (usually without scarring).
For some people the pain continues long after the blisters have cleared, due to a complication called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN can last weeks, months, or even years and occurs in up to half of untreated people who are 60 years age or older.
Antiviral medicines such as acyclovir often help shorten the length and severity of shingles. Antiviral meds must be started as soon as possible to be effective, so if you think you or someone you love has shingles, call your doctor.
Other treatments such as using wet compresses, calamine lotion and colloidal oatmeal baths can help reduce pain and itching. Some over-the-counter pain medicine may help, but check with your doctor to be sure you are taking the right one.
While shingles is not contagious, meaning that the shingles virus cannot be transmitted, a person in the early stages of shingles before the blisters crust over can transmit the virus that causes chickenpox. Tips for prevention:
- Keep the rash covered with non-stick bandages.
- Do not touch or scratch the rash.
- Wash your hands often to prevent the spread of the virus.
- Avoid contact with pregnant women, infants, and people whose immune systems are compromised by other diseases.
- Vaccination: Either the chickenpox vaccine or the shingles vaccine.
- Chickenpox vaccine: Routinely given to children aged 12 to 18 months, the chickenpox vaccine is now also recommended for adults and older children who have never had chicken pox. It doesn’t provide 100 percent immunity, but it does considerably reduce the risk of complications and the severity of the disease.
- Shingles vaccine: Experts recommend this vaccine be given to everyone over 50, whether or not they’ve had shingles before. So get vaccinated! There are exceptions regarding who should get the vaccine, including people with immunosuppressive diseases such as HIV or those receiving cancer treatments that can weaken their immune system, so again, make sure your doctor is aware of any other health conditions. We offer the shingles vaccine at both of our pharmacies.