By Kathy Finley, Director of Family Services for Concierge Care Advisors
It’s that season again. TV, radio and media commercials for flu shots, pneumonia shots and now shingles shots. So, I am familiar with flu and pneumonia vaccinations, and I remember my mom having shingles about 15 years ago. So, what is shingles? Shingles, also known as zoster or herpes zoster, is a viral infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox and is characterized by a blistering and severely painful rash. It is also part of the viral group that includes cold sores and genital herpes, but these two latter groups of the virus do not increase your risk for shingles or the other way around.
Any person who has had chicken pox can get shingles. After you’ve been infected with chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus lies inactive in your body. It stays mostly in spinal or cranial nerves and can stay there for many decades. If the virus reactivates, it can travel along nerve pathways to your skin and cause a rash to erupt. Shingles isn’t life-threatening, but it can be very painful. I remember my mother suffering for weeks. It’s been on the rise in the United States for the last few decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), although doctors aren’t sure why.
Shingles usually appears as a single row of blisters that may wrap around one side of your torso, one side of your face or neck, or around one eye. It almost always affects only one side of the body. Before an outbreak they say that you may have chills and feel feverish, head-achy, nauseous, and generally unwell; flu-like symptoms that may feel slightly disorienting. I saw one article that said that if you have never had a migraine, you might think you are having your first one.
So, who is at risk for shingles? Well, me for one. I am healthy and over 50 and had the chicken pox when I was very little. The risk of shingles increases as you age, which may be due to lowered immunity to infections as you grow older. Certain illnesses can put you at higher risk for shingles. Certain cancers like leukemia and lymphoma, diabetes, HIV and AIDS can increase the chance of shingles outbreak. Also some medications, especially immunosuppressive medications like corticosteroids for conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, and some cancers may increase the chance of an outbreak. This also includes medications used for people who have had an organ transplant.
I was shocked to hear that almost one out of every three people in the United States will develop shingles at some point. About half of them occur in people age 60 and older. 50% of people that get to age 85 will experience shingles.
Is shingles contagious? Shingles can’t be passed between people, but the virus – varicella-zoster can spread to people who haven’t been vaccinated against chickenpox or did not have chickenpox in the past. This could conceivably give them chickenpox but not shingles. Note that it can be dangerous for newborns, pregnant women or anyone with a weakened immune system. The following steps can help keep you from spreading the virus:
- Keep the rash covered
- Avoid touching or scratching the rash
- Wash your hands often
Shingles tend to show up most frequently on the torso due to the number of nerves that are in that area (the virus follows nerves) but it can also affect your back, and eye area too.
There’s no cure for shingles, and blisters usually scab over in 7-10 days, but if you get treatment quickly, it can help speed the healing process to two to four weeks. Interestingly, the blisters often leave no scars. Your physician may give you an antiviral drug, such as Valacyclovir to treat the rash, in addition to other drugs if you are experiencing pain. Some home remedies, like oatmeal baths and over-the-counter (OTC) medication like ibuprofen or aspirin, may also bring relief. And if you’re 50 or older, you can receive a shingles vaccine.
Even treated early, up to 20 percent of shingles patients will experience pain for weeks or even years after the blisters heal. Those who are still feeling pain 90 or more days after the onset of the rash have a condition that’s called post herpetic neuralgia. There are two shingles vaccines available: Zostavax and Shingrix. You can still get these vaccines, which are recommended for people ages 50 and older, if you’ve had shingles previously. Yes, it’s even possible to get shingles two, three, four, or even five more times after the initial episode. Thankfully, it’s relatively rare to have it more than once.
I for one will be getting my shingles vaccination. As I said, my mother suffered for weeks and she is a stronger woman than me!