Shingles is an often painful illness caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, varicella zoster. Shingles is fairly common, especially in older adults. But with the development of shingles and chickenpox vaccines, it remains to be seen whether cases of shingles will decrease or how the rate of shingles will change thanks to fewer cases of chickenpox.
While the same virus causes chickenpox and shingles, the illnesses are significantly different. Chickenpox is very common in children; approximately 90 percent of adults have had chickenpox. It is thought that the virus sometimes leaves the blisters during a chickenpox outbreak, lies dormant in nerve roots and is re-activated decades later by stress, illness or immune problems, causing shingles.
Shingles affects adults over 50 most, although it can appear in anyone who has had chickenpox. The symptoms begin as a tingling, numbness, itching or pain in an area or band innervated by one nerve, often on one side the abdominal area or face. After a few days fluid-filled blisters appear along the nerve, or dermatome.
The blisters scab over within a week, and the outbreak usually resolves within 2-5 weeks with treatment. Unfortunately, in about 20 percent of cases, the discomfort does not go away with the rash. When the nerve symptoms remain after the rash resolves, it is called post-herpetic neuralgia. This can be quite painful.
Approximately 1 million Americans come down with shingles every year. Most people only get it once in a lifetime, but it is possible to have multiple recurrences. Shingles can have severe complications including pneumonia, encephalitis, hearing problems, blindness or even death, but these are rare.
There are treatments for shingles, and it is important to get the medications as soon as possible when an outbreak begins. The meds are antiviral drugs and they significantly decrease the severity and length of the outbreak. Some people may need pain medication and steroids as well.
There is now a shingles vaccine, and it is recommended for people over 60 who have had chickenpox. Just like any vaccine or medication, there are some people who should not get the vaccine, including those who are allergic to any of the ingredients. The vaccine does not cure shingles if you already have it, but it prevents at least half of the expected cases and lessens the severity in the cases that occur after vaccination.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Shingles Disease - Questions and Answers (Herpes Zoster)
CDC: Herpes Zoster Vaccine Q & A (Shingles)
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: Shingles Information Page