Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash. Although shingles can occur anywhere on your body, it most often appears as a single stripe of blisters that wraps around either the left or the right side of your torso.
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus — the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you've had chickenpox, the virus lies inactive in nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. Years later, the virus may reactivate as shingles.
Who is at risk
Anyone who has ever had chickenpox can develop shingles. Factors that may increase your risk of developing shingles include:
- Being older than 50.
- Having certain diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and cancer.
- Undergoing radiation or chemotherapy for cancer.
- Taking certain medications.
The signs and symptoms of shingles usually affect only a small section of one side of your body. These signs and symptoms may include:
- Pain, burning, numbness or tingling
- Sensitivity to touch
- A red rash that begins a few days after the pain
- Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
Some people also experience:
- Sensitivity to light
What you can do
The only way to reduce the risk of developing shingles and the long-term pain from postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) is to get vaccinated.
Preventive service at no cost
CDC recommends that healthy adults 50 years and older get two doses of the shingles vaccine called Shingrix®.
Why vaccination is important
Complications from shingles can include:
- For some people, shingles pain continues long after the blisters have cleared.
- Shingles in or around an eye can cause painful eye infections that may result in vision loss.
- Depending on which nerves are affected, shingles can cause an inflammation of the brain, facial paralysis, or hearing or balance problems.
- Skin infections.
A person with shingles can pass the varicella-zoster virus to anyone who isn't immune to chickenpox. This usually occurs through direct contact with the open sores of the shingles rash. Once infected, the person will develop chickenpox, however, not shingles.
Most people who develop shingles have only one episode during their lifetime. However, a person can have a second or even a third episode.
What the vaccination is
Zostavax offers protection against shingles for about five years. It's a live vaccine given as a single injection, usually in the upper arm. Zostavax isn't recommended until age 60.
Shingrix is the preferred vaccine. Shingrix may offer protection against shingles beyond five years. It's a nonliving vaccine made of a virus component, and is given in two doses, with two to six months between doses. Shingrix is approved and recommended for people age 50 and older, including those who've previously received Zostavax.
Talk to your doctor about which option is right for you.
Several antiviral medicines—acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir—are available to treat shingles and shorten the length and severity of illness. People with shingles should start taking these medicines as soon as possible after the rash appears to be the most effective. People who have, or think they might have, shingles should call their healthcare provider as soon as possible to discuss treatment options.
Pain medicine may help relieve the pain caused by shingles. Wet compresses, calamine lotion, and colloidal oatmeal baths may help relieve some of the itching.
Contact your doctor promptly if you suspect shingles, but especially in the following situations:
- The pain and rash occur near an eye.
- You're 60 or older.
- You or someone in your family has a weakened immune system (due to cancer, medications or chronic illness).
- The rash is widespread and painful.
As with the chickenpox vaccine, the shingles vaccine doesn't guarantee you won't get shingles. But this vaccine will likely reduce the course and severity of the disease and reduce your risk of postherpetic neuralgia.