What Do You Know About Shingles?
By Elaine Beppel, MD, Virtua Family Medicine Physician
Shingles is a common viral illness caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, but with very different—and agonizing—symptoms. Its blistering rash is sometimes mistaken for poison ivy, but flu-like symptoms and severe pain are sure signs that it’s not your garden-variety skin rash. The virus strikes the highly sensitive nerve roots, and feels like needles piercing the skin.
Serious complications can result from shingles. The most common of which is a condition known as post-herpetic neuralgia. It can cause debilitating pain lasting for months or even years.
We are vigilant in looking for and treating shingles in or around the eye because the infection can lead to vision loss. Other serious complications include hearing or balance problems, facial paralysis and serious skin infections.
While shingles will disappear on its own, medical attention can limit the course and severity as well as help manage the pain. There’s no cure for the virus, but early treatment with anti-viral drugs can help the immune system to prevent it from reproducing as quickly. Patients do best when we see them within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.
The Shingles Connection to Chickenpox
Though they’re caused by the same virus, chickenpox and shingles are different. After a bout of childhood chickenpox, the virus that causes both chickenpox and shingles remains dormant in the nerves. Although we have some immunity to the virus, it can become active again as herpes zoster, or shingles, in times of stress. And since most of us have either had chickenpox or the vaccine for chickenpox, shingles is very common.
A shingles vaccine is available for people with healthy immune systems who are over age 60—the largest risk group. The vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of getting shingles by up to 50 percent. But, for those who still get it, there’s a lower incidence of long-term nerve pain or other complications.
Fast Facts About Shingles
- People at risk are those who are over age 60 who have had chickenpox, who have immune-suppressing conditions or who are undergoing chemotherapy.
- Shingles can be contagious at a certain point of the illness, but not in the same way as a cold, the flu or chickenpox is contagious.
- A vaccine is available.
Updated June 6, 2016