Shingles: What You Should Know
Shingles, also called herpes zoster, is a painful skin rash affecting up to 1 million Americans every year. Caused by the varicella zoster virus—the same virus that causes chickenpox – shingles typically begins with pain, numbness or itching that eventually develops into a rash. Shingles can also cause headache, fever, chills and stomach upset.
“If you’ve ever had chickenpox, you can get shingles,” says Sean Drake, M.D., internal medicine physician at Henry Ford Health System. “Even people who think they’ve never had chickenpox may be at risk since they may have contracted a very mild case that didn’t cause obvious symptoms.” In fact, nearly one out of three Americans will develop shingles during their lifetime.
Here are answers to the most frequently asked questions about this strikingly common adult-onset illness:
Q: What is the shingles virus?
Dr. Drake: It’s a reactivation of the varicella zoster virus, which causes chickenpox. Most people born before 1990 were exposed to chickenpox as kids. The virus lies dormant in the body in nerve tissue. Our immune system forgets about it until it re-emerges – and when it does, it comes back with a vengeance.
Q: What are the primary symptoms?
Dr. Drake: Initial symptoms may include pain, numbness, burning and itching. Since the virus reactivates along a nerve, patients typically develop a rash with little fluid-filled vesicles that appear in clusters on the skin that show up almost in a line. While most cases of shingles resolve on their own within a few weeks, resulting nerve pain can last for months or even years after the rash fades away.
Q: Who is most susceptible?
Dr. Drake: Almost all older Americans harbor the varicella zoster virus but the risk of developing shingles – and suffering from severe pain – increases with age, rising sharply after age 60. People who have autoimmune conditions, or who are battling cancer or other diseases that are assaulting their immune system (such as human immunodeficiency virus) are also at higher risk.
Q: What is the best way to prevent shingles?
Dr. Drake: Get vaccinated. Until recently, the only vaccine for shingles was a product called Zostavax®. Now, the CDC voted to make a new vaccine called Shingrix® the preferred vaccine for all adults over age 50 (Zostavax is recommended only to those over age 60). Approved in 2017, Shingrix is much more effective than its predecessor but it requires two shots instead of just one. If you’ve already been vaccinated with Zostavax, ask your doctor for the new vaccine five years after your dose of Zostavax.
Q: Should you get vaccinated if you’ve already had shingles?
Dr. Drake: Yes. Unfortunately, you can get shingles more than once during your lifetime. Getting vaccinated will help prevent future recurrences of the disease.
If you develop shingles, see your doctor. Treatments are available both to help minimize pain and to help speed up your recovery. Remember, too, that shingles is contagious – even before the rash appears. So even though you can’t “catch” shingles, you can give varicella zoster (or chickenpox) to people who haven’t been exposed to the virus, including newborns and unvaccinated children.
To find a doctor at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Dr. Sean Drake is an internal medicine physician who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical – Sterling Heights.