If you have had chickenpox, you could be at risk of getting shingles. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in three people in the United States get shingles at some point. Shingles and the rash it causes can be uncomfortable or even very painful. But what is shingles, and what does it have to do with chickenpox?
Shingles is a viral infection caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Shingles is also called herpes zoster. If you’ve had chickenpox, the virus lies quietly near the spinal cord. It can come out again later in life. This causes shingles. Clinicians are currently not sure why the virus comes out again. It is more common in older people and in people who are immunocompromised (a weak immune system). Not everyone who has had chickenpox gets shingles. You can lower your chance of getting shingles by getting the shingles vaccines.
If someone has shingles, the virus from the rash can spread to people who have never had chickenpox. If it spreads from the person with shingles to another person, that other person can get a chickenpox infection. The other person can get it by touching an oozing blister of a person with shingles. Shingles doesn’t spread by coughing. Once a person’s blisters have scabbed over, they are no longer contagious.
Shingles is fairly easy to diagnose, and your clinician will probably start by looking at your skin. The main symptom of shingles is a painful rash on one side of the body that looks like a cluster of blisters, usually on your body or face. Sometimes it is on the arm or leg.
Other symptoms include:
The shingles rash usually lasts 7-10 days and should fully go away in four weeks. To make sure that you get the right treatment plan for you, the American Academy of Dermatology group recommends seeing your clinician within the first three days of symptoms.
You should always contact your clinician if you have shingles symptoms. It is especially important if:
Some complications can occur after a shingles infection. The most common complication is post-herpetic neuralgia. This is a pain that stays even after your rash has healed.
Other complications include:
After seeing your clinician, there are a few ways you can care for your shingles infection at home:
There are several medications that may help shingles pain and speed up healing:
The Shingrix vaccine can lower your risk of developing shingles and may lessen your chance of having complications from the infection.
The shingles vaccine is given in two doses, with 2-6 months between the two shots. The vaccine is 90% effective in people with healthy immune systems and protects you from shingles for at least five years.
After getting the vaccine, you may experience short-term side effects like a fever or headache, which typically resolve in 2-3 days. You can take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help ease these side effects. Serious side effects from the shingles vaccine are very rare.
The vaccine is recommended for people 50 and up, even if:
If you currently have shingles, are pregnant, or are breastfeeding, it is recommended that you wait to get the vaccine. You should not get the vaccine if you had an allergic reaction to it.
Remember that the chance of getting shingles goes up with age. Ask your clinician about your risk of developing shingles and when you should get the shingles vaccine. If you have any other questions about shingles, how it is treated, your symptoms, or how to schedule a shingles vaccine, please contact your Atrius Health provider.