What Do You Know About Shingles? - Virtua Article

Get the Facts on Shingles and the New, More Effective Vaccine

By Martin Topiel, MD, FSHEA—Virtua Infection Control Officer 
Infectious Disease Specialist—Virtua Infectious Disease

Shingles is a common and painful viral infection that affects 1 in 3 people in the United States. It affects most people once, but can recur 2 to 3 times or even more. 

Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus—the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you’ve had chickenpox, the virus lies inactive in the highly sensitive nerve roots near the brain and spinal cord. Stress, aging and weakening of the immune system can contribute to a reactivation of the virus. Because it lives in nerve tissue, when it reactivates and strikes, it can feel like knife-stabbing pain or needles piercing your skin. 

Most people actually feel the severe pain before a rash develops. This often causes anxiety as you try to determine the cause of the pain. 

When the rash emerges, it can appear as small blisters that can be mistaken for poison ivy. The rash also can be accompanied by flu-like symptoms. 

What’s unique is that the rash is typically limited to ONE side of the body and rarely spreads to the other side. Since this is a virus, you ARE contagious and can transmit it to others through direct contact with the blisters (or fluid from them) until they have scabbed. 

Complications from shingles

Serious complications can result from shingles. The most common complication is a condition known as post-herpetic neuralgia. It can cause debilitating pain that lasts for months or up to a year. As you get older, the occurrence and severity of post-herpetic neuralgia becomes more significant. Less common complications include vision loss, hearing loss, pneumonia and even brain infection. 

How is shingles treated

While shingles will ultimately disappear on its own through the body’s active immune system, antiviral medication can help limit the duration of the infection. These medications also can reduce the potential for and severity of post-herpetic neuralgia. Antiviral treatment regimens are most effective if they’re started within 48 hours of development of the virus. 

Preventing shingles

Vaccination is the most important step you can take to prevent and reduce your risk for shingles. The latest recommendation (which was updated by the Centers for Disease Control in 2018) is for people age 50 and older to undergo a 2-step vaccination with the Shingrix vaccine. 

This newer vaccine (approved by the FDA in October 2017) offers protection against shingles beyond 5 years. It’s a nonliving vaccine that’s given in 2 doses, 2-6 months apart, and it can play a key role in preventing and limiting the post-herpetic neuralgia. 

Even if you’ve had the previously recommended Zostravax vaccine, talk to your doctor to see if you would benefit from the newer, more effective vaccine. 

Call 1-888-847-8823 to make an appointment today.

Updated January 14, 2022

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