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What You Need to Know About Shingles

If you’ve ever known someone who’s had shingles, then you’ve heard how painful it can be. But what exactly are shingles, and how do you treat it?

“Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus which usually results in a painful rash on one side of the body,” said Kim Schindler, NP a family medicine nurse practitioner with Banner Health Clinic in Wyoming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1 out of every 3 people in the U.S. will get shingles at some point during their life.

Shingles Symptoms: What Should I Look Out For?

The first symptoms of shingles tend to be itching, tingling, burning or pain, followed by a rash a few days later. A clue that it’s shingles, and not something else, is shingles almost always presents on just one side of the body. In addition to these symptoms affecting the skin, some people also experience fever, chills, upset stomach or headaches, although as Schindler noted, “fewer than 20% of those who develop shingles experience these non-skin symptoms."

Once the rash appears, it usually consists of clustered red bumps that may form into blisters and ooze fluid. After 1-2 weeks, the blisters begin to heal and form scabs, but pain may persist at the site of the rash long after the skin has healed.

“Because shingles is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus, anyone who has had chickenpox is a candidate for shingles, even children,” said Schindler. And varicella zoster virus (VZV), the virus that causes shingles, can be spread from a person with active shingles to others and cause chickenpox in those who have not had chickenpox or received the chickenpox vaccine, according to the CDC.

Treating Shingles

The most important thing to know about shingles treatment is that you must start taking the medications as soon as you see a rash appear for the treatment to be most effective.

The typical treatment is done with antiviral medications, prescribed by your health care provider, to shorten the duration and lessen the severity of shingles, said Schindler. If not taken in time, the other option is to treat the pain associated with shingles with acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen, and to help with itch relief, a topical cream like calamine lotion or an oatmeal bath can be considered. Although not common, the shingles rash can become infected and then antibiotics are needed.

Should I Get a Shingles Vaccine?

The CDC recommends that healthy adults 50 years and older get two doses of the shingles vaccine called Shingrix. Adults 19 years and older who have weakened immune systems due to disease or therapy should also get vaccinated. Schindler said Shingrix is highly effective in preventing shingles and the long-term pain after the rash has healed. In fact, according to the CDC, Shingrix is more than 90% effective at preventing shingles.

Even if you have previously had the shingles or have received the Zostavax vaccine* (an older version of the shingles vaccine) or the chickenpox vaccine, you should talk with your healthcare provider about getting the Shingrix vaccine.

If you’re concerned you may have shingles, early treatment is critical, so consult a physician immediately.

*Updated: The vaccine content of this blog was updated on May 3, 2022. NOTE: The shingles vaccine called zoster vaccine live (Zostavax) is no longer available in the U.S. as of November 18, 2020. 

Infectious Disease Immunizations Dermatology

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