Shingles and the Varicella-Zoster Virus

| Featured, Graceful Health, News
George Terwilliger, MD

By Dr. George Terwilliger, Grace Cottage Hospital Chief Medical Officer

Do you remember having chickenpox? 99% of Americans born before 1980 have had chickenpox at some point in their lifetime, even if they can’t remember ever being sick. Unfortunately, that puts them at risk for developing shingles. At least 1 million people per year in the United States get shingles. 1 in 3 adults will develop shingles in their lifetime.

What is shingles? Shingles is a rash caused by reactivation of dormant varicella-zoster virus, which resides in nerve roots for a person’s entire life if they ever had chickenpox. It consists of red, fluid-filled blisters which span over one side of the face or body. This rash can last up to 10 days before the blisters scab over. Shingles is uncomfortable, often itchy, and sometimes intensely painful. In some people, it can evolve into postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN.  PHN is long-term nerve pain, is also tremendously painful and is one of the most significant complications of singles. 10% to 18% of people with shingles experience PHN; your chances of developing PHN only increase with age.

What are other symptoms of shingles? Apart from the painful rash, other common symptoms of shingles include fever, fatigue, headache, chills, upset stomach, and other flu-like symptoms. You may experience early symptoms of pain, itchiness and tingling even before the rash breaks out. PHN can occur where the rash was located and can last for months, or even years, after the rash has disappeared. Other serious complications from shingles include vision loss if shingles affects the eye, and infection from bacteria entering open blisters.

At risk for developing shingles? If you have ever had chickenpox, are 50 years and older, or have a weakened immune system, you are at higher risk for developing shingles.

While you cannot contract shingles from someone suffering from a shingles outbreak, a person with active shingles can give chickenpox to someone who has never been vaccinated against, or been infected with, chickenpox before. Shingles and chickenpox are the same virus.

The best protection against shingles is the Shingrix vaccine. Shingrix is recommended by the CDC and is more than 70 % effective at preventing shingles.

Even if you have already had shingles, you can still get shingles again. The Shingrix vaccine will protect against future outbreaks. You can even get the Shingrix vaccine if you have been vaccinated against chickenpox. Shingrix is a two-dose vaccine given 2 to 6 months apart. The Shingrix vaccine has shown to be effective in preventing shingles for up to at least 7 years after being given.

Shingrix vaccines are readily available here at Grace Cottage or at many area pharmacies. All it takes is a phone call to your primary care team, and two shots later you are protecting yourself against shingles. Most insurances, Medicare, and Medicaid cover the expense. Why wait? Take steps to spare yourself from going through the pain of shingles.