Shingles is an infection caused by varicella-zoster, the virus that causes Chickenpox. If you’ve had Chickenpox, v. zoster stays dormant in the nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. The virus may become active again years later, resulting in the painful rash associated with Shingles. Although the rash can affect any part of your body, it usually wraps around one side of your face or torso.
What are the symptoms of Shingles?
Although Shingles isn’t life threatening, it is often very painful. Shingles usually affects only a small section of one side of your body. Common sites for the rash include the chest, back, buttocks, neck, and sometimes the face or scalp. Sometimes the rash occurs around one eye or on one side of the neck or face.
Pain is usually the first symptom of Shingles. For some people, the pain can be intense. Other symptoms may include:
- Burning, numbness or tingling
- Fever and chills
- General achiness
Serious complications from Shingles can include vision, hearing, and neurological problems including balance disorders and potentially permanent neuralgia (nerve pain).
How can I get Shingles?
The reason why people get Shingles is not clear. About 20 percent of people who have had Chickenpox will develop Shingles. Most people who get Shingles are over age 50, but Shingles can happen at any age, particularly when disease or stress weakens the immune system.
You may be at increased risk of developing Shingles if you:
- Have a disease that weakens your immune system, such as HIV/AIDS or some types of cancer.
- Are undergoing radiation or chemotherapy.
- Take anti-rejection drugs.
- Have been using steroids such as prednisone for an extended period.
Most people who get Shingles will only have one experience. However, it is possible for Shingles to return.
Is there a vaccine available for Shingles?
Yes, there is a relatively new vaccine called Zostavax® which is the best way you can protect yourself from Shingles. It reduces your risk of getting Shingles by about 50 percent. If you do get Shingles after you have been vaccinated, you will most likely experience less pain, including the neuralgia that can remain long after the Shingles rash has disappeared. Zostavax® is recommended for people 50 years of age and older.
Tell your health care provider if you:
- Have had a life-threatening reaction to any component of the vaccine including gelatin or neomycin.
- Have an immune system weakened by disease or medical treatment.
- Have active, untreated Tuberculosis.
- Are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Are taking antiviral medication.
- Received a live vaccine within the last month.
How many shots will I need?
You will need one dose of Zostavax®. However, the duration of protection this vaccine provides is currently unknown, and the need for boosters has not been determined.
What is the treatment for Shingles?
Early treatment can help shorten a Shingles infection and lessen the chance of complications. If you think you have Shingles, see a doctor as soon as possible. Antiviral medicines can help speed healing and reduce your risk of complications, but they work best if started within three days after the rash appears.
Talk with your doctor or pharmacist about using over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen or naproxen. If your pain is very severe, your doctor may prescribe other types of pain medication.
You may be able to relieve the itching and pain by:
- Using cool, wet compresses.
- Applying calamine lotion to the blisters.
- Taking a cool bath with cornstarch or oatmeal.
If Shingles blisters aren’t properly treated, bacterial skin infections may develop. Keep your rash dry and clean.
Shingles cannot be transmitted from person to person. However, if someone who hasn’t had Chickenpox or the Varicella vaccination has direct contact with a Shingles rash, there is a small chance that person can become infected with Chickenpox.
Find out more information on this illness from our Vancouver Travel Clinic or any of our other 18 Travel Clinic locations.