Shingles – Know the Facts

About one million Americans develop shingles each year. Shingles is a painful rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. This virus is called the varicella zoster virus. You must have had chickenpox in order to get shingles. Shingles effects people of all ages but is more common in people over the age of 50. People who have immune deficiency diseases are at a great risk for developing shingles.

Before the shingles rash develops there may be pain, itching, and tingling in the affected area. It may also cause fever, chills, headache and upset stomach. The shingles rash usually begins on the face or body. The rash blisters and scabs in about 3-5 days. The rash can take up to 4 weeks to disappear. Usually a person will only experience one episode of shingles in a lifetime although children may have them several times.

Anyone who has had chicken pox can develop shingles. Shingles are not contagious if you have had chickenpox unless you come in direct contact with a blister before a scab forms. If you have not had chickenpox, and come in contact with the virus from shingles blisters you will develop chicken pox.

Once the shingle blisters have crusted over the person is no longer communicable. Covering the blisters is the best way to assure the virus is not passed on to others. Shingles cannot be passed on through coughing or sneezing. Hand washing is important when changing bandages or treating the rash.

Modern antiviral drugs have been shown to shorten the time a person suffers with the rash. If these drugs are started as soon as the rash appears they not only shorten the time the rash lasts but also lessens the symptoms such as pain and itching. So it is important to contact your physician as soon as you develop symptoms of shingles.

Long-term effects from shingles are very rare. Pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation (encephalitis) or death has been known to occur. A more common effect is pain that continues after the rash is gone. This is known as post-herpetic neuralgia and occurs in 1 in 5 patients. Older patients develop this problem more often than younger ones.

Because the chickenpox virus stays in the body anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk of developing this disease. People with cancer, organ transplants, leukemia, HIV or those receiving immunosuppressant drugs should take special precautions if they must interact with anyone suffering from shingles. A few simple preventative measures can prevent the spread of shingles.