Dr. Kristi Trussell is the assistant medical director of The Urgency Room in Woodbury, Eagan and Vadnais Heights, Minn.
If you have had shingles, you are very aware of how painful this viral infection can be.
Shingles most commonly appears as a rash or a stripe of blisters that wraps around the left or right side of your torso, but it can appear anywhere on the body including the face and scalp. It is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you've had chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. For some, the virus can reactivate as shingles.
Shingles are more common in older adults and those with lowered immunity due to infection. But it is not limited to the older population as even children can get shingles.
What Does Shingles Look Like? In most cases, shingles only affect a small section of one side of your body and can cause the following symptoms:
• Sensitivity to touch
• Pain, burning, numbness or tingling
• A red rash that begins a few days after the pain
• Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over
It's important to know that everyone suffering from shingles can have their own set of symptoms. The pain can be different for everyone. Furthermore, some experience shingles pain without ever developing the rash. For others, the shingles rash occurs around one eye or on one side of the neck or face.
The following symptoms are especially concerning.
• You are 50 or older, as complications are more common.
• Pain or rash near an eye. If left untreated, permanent eye damage may result.
• You have a weakened immune system because of chronic illness, medications or diseases like cancer.
• The rash has spread to a large area of your body and is painful.
There are several factors that can increase your risk of getting shingles.
Shingles are most common in people older than 50. Experts say half the people age 80 and older will have shingles.
Diseases that weaken your immune system, such as HIV/AIDS and cancer, can increase your risk of shingles. Also, for cancer patients, radiation or chemotherapy can lower your resistance.
Are you taking certain medications? For example, prolonged use of steroids like prednisone can increase your risk as can drugs designed to prevent rejection of transplanted organs. Medications to treat autoimmune diseases also suppress the immune system.
Is it contagious?
Yes. You can pass the varicella-zoster virus to anyone who isn't immune to chickenpox. If this person comes in contact with an open sore from the shingles rash, they could develop the virus.
Avoid contact with anyone who has not had the chickenpox vaccine and people with weakened immune systems, pregnant women and newborns.
If you have shingles, an antiviral medication is prescribed. You may also receive medications to help control the pain.
There are two types of vaccines that may help prevent shingles:
The varicella vaccine (Varivax) is a routine component of immunization for children to prevent chickenpox. It is also used for adults who have never had chickenpox. This vaccine doesn't guarantee you won't get chickenpox or shingles, but it can reduce the severity of the disease if you do get it.
There are two options for shingles vaccines: Zostavax and Shingrix.
Zostavax, (approved by the FDA in 2006) offers protection against shingles for about five years. It is administered as a single injection in the upper arm.
Shingrix (approved by the FDA in 2017) is the preferred alternative because studies show it offers protection against shingles beyond five years. It is given in two doses, with two to six months between doses. It is also approved and recommended for people age 50 and older, including those who have previously received Zostavax. Zostavax isn't recommended until age 60. Because of its popularity, shortages of Shingrix have been reported.
As with the chickenpox vaccine, the shingles vaccine doesn't guarantee you won't get shingles. But this vaccine will likely reduce the course and severity of the disease.
If you are concerned you may have shingles and are in need of treatment options, start with the doctors at The Urgency Room or your primary care physician.