Shingles: What is it and why should I get vaccinated?

April 21, 2015

Almost one out of every three individuals will develop shingles during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Shingles, otherwise known as herpes zoster, causes a painful, blistering rash that can have complications that last for months or even years afterwards. However, shingles doesn’t have to be inevitable: there is a vaccine, Zostavax, recommended for anyone over the age of 60.

Heather Miller, Pharm.D., assistant professor of pharmacy practice at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy, provides additional information on shingles and the vaccine.

The symptoms

Since shingles is caused by the same virus as chickenpox (the varicella zoster virus), anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk for developing the disease later in life.

“Shingles is a very painful virus that causes a rash that can last anywhere between two to four weeks and occurs when then varicella zoster virus reactivates within the body, usually at a later age when the immune system is compromised,” Miller said.

As opposed to chickenpox, the shingles rash usually only occurs in localized areas on one side of the body. While the rash itself appears similar to chickenpox, it is more painful, described as more of a burning, stabbing, aching sensation, along with the customary itchiness. If the rash occurs on the face, it can affect the eyes and even cause loss of vision.

Other symptoms that may accompany shingles are:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Upset stomach

If a person develops a painful rash and suspects shingles, they should see a health care professional as soon as possible, especially if the rash is large or near the eye. In addition, people with shingles should wash their hands frequently, keep the rash covered and avoid touching or scratching it to avoid spreading the virus. They should also avoid contact with pregnant women who have never had chickenpox, low birth weight infants and people with weakened immune systems. These groups are all at higher risk of contracting the virus.

After the rash goes away, some patients will still feel a similar burning or painful sensation, known as Postherpetic Neuralgia (PHN). PHN can continue for months or even years after the actual virus is cured, and is more common in older patients.

Those at risk

Man scratching his arm

After a person has had chickenpox, the varicella zoster virus can remain dormant in their body and reactivate later as shingles.

After a person contracts the varicella zoster virus (the chickenpox virus), it can remain dormant in the body for decades before reactivating. Only those who have had the chickenpox virus can contract shingles. If an individual who never had chickenpox comes in contact with the shingles virus, they will contract chickenpox, not shingles.

“The main risk factor for developing shingles is a weakened immune system, which allows the shingles virus to activate. This naturally occurs with age, however other factors can contribute to a compromised immune system such as lack of sleep, poor diet or even stress,” Miller said.

The vaccine

Zostavax is approved for adults over 50 and is recommended for everyone 60 years or older. The vaccine is one-time shot that can help protect against the virus and reduce the chances and severity of complications. While it’s rare, individuals who have already had shingles can have a relapse. Those who have already had shingles should still be vaccinated as it can prevent another episode and help treat complications such as PHN.

The CDC estimates that 99 percent of adults 40 or older have had chickenpox. Even if a person doesn’t recall having chickenpox, they should still get the shingles vaccination, since it is highly likely they have come in contact with the virus. For those who have received the chickenpox vaccination, they are protected from contracting both chickenpox and shingles, even if they come in contact with the virus.

Since Zostavax uses a live virus, it is not recommended for people with compromised immune systems such as:

  • Those being treated for cancer with radiation or chemotherapy
  • Those who have HIV, AIDS or another disease that affects the immune system
  • Anyone being treated with drugs that affect the immune system, such as steroids
  • Cancer patients with conditions that affect the bone marrow or lymphatic system
  • Pregnant women

For more information on the shingles virus and Zostavax, visit the CDC’s website.

— Elizabeth Grimm

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