Just recently, a Mystic Valley Elder Services consumer’s grandmother was diagnosed with shingles. She always thought that was an old-fashioned disease that no one got anymore. But shingles has never disappeared. In fact, each year, approximately 1 million Americans will develop this painful viral infection. Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox.
The risk for shingles increases with age. Half of all cases of shingles are in people over 60. People with weakened immune systems from illnesses such as cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, or HIV are at a higher risk of developing shingles.
The good news is shingles can be prevented by getting a vaccination. More than 99% of Americans ages 40 and older have had chickenpox, even if they don’t remember getting the disease. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that healthy adults 50 years and older get two doses of the shingles vaccine called Shingrix, separated by 2 to 6 months, to prevent shingles and the complications from the disease. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist about getting the vaccine.
Once you have chickenpox, the virus can stay dormant in your nerve tissues for years—even decades. In some people, the virus suddenly wakes up, forming blisters or rash on the chest, back, waistline, upper arms, or face.
The shingles rash will begin with tingling, pain, numbness, or itching. Within a few days, a rash will develop and may spread. Fluid-filled blisters that are very similar to chickenpox blisters will grow out of the rash.
The pain from shingles can be mild to intense. Some people will have mostly itching; others will feel pain, even from a gentle touch or breeze. Other symptoms of shingles can include fever, headache, chills, and upset stomach.
Shingles itself is not contagious. You can’t spread the condition to another person. However, the varicella-zoster virus is contagious, and if you have shingles, you can spread the virus to another person, which could then cause them to develop chickenpox. If you’ve never had chicken pox, make sure not to touch open blisters until they scab over, or you’ll develop chicken pox yourself.
Shingles can last from two weeks to several weeks. Most people will only have one outbreak in a lifetime, but multiple outbreaks are possible.