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ID Care: What is shingles and can it be prevented?

Shingles, also known as zoster, is a painful rash that develops on one side of the face or body.

Nearly one out of three people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime. It is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays inactive in the body. The virus can reactivate years later, causing shingles.

Anyone who has recovered from chickenpox may develop shingles; even children. The risk increases as you get older – about half of all cases occur in men and women 60 years old or older. Some people are have a greater risk of getting shingles, including people who have medical conditions that keep their immune systems from working properly such as cancers like leukemia or lymphoma.

The rash forms blisters that typically scab or crust over in seven to 10 days and clears up within two to four weeks. Before the rash develops, people often have pain, itching, or tingling in the area. Shingles cannot be passed from one person to another. However, the virus can be spread from a person with active shingles to another person who has never had chickenpox. A person can spread the virus when the rash is in the blister phase. Once the rash has developed crusts, the person is no longer contagious.

If you have shingles:

  • Keep the rash covered.
  • Avoid touching or scratching the rash.
  • Wash your hands often to prevent the spread virus.
  • Until your rash has developed crusts, avoid contact with
    • pregnant women who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine
    • premature or low birth weight infants
    • people with weakened immune systems, such as people receiving chemotherapy

The most common complication is a condition called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). It is severe pain in the areas where people had the shingles rash, even after the rash clears up. While it usually resolves in a few weeks or months in most patients, some can have pain for many years. Pain medicine may help relieve the pain caused by shingles. Wet compresses and oatmeal baths may help relieve some of the itching.

As people get older, they are more likely to develop PHN, and the pain is more likely to be severe. The only way to reduce the risk of developing shingles and the long-term pain is to get vaccinated. Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that people aged 60 years and older get one dose of shingles vaccine. Shingles vaccine is available in pharmacies and doctor's offices. There are medicines available that will help shorten the length and severity of the illness Thus, people who have or think they might have shingles should call their healthcare provider to discuss treatment options.

Sarbjit Sandhu, MD, works at the Hillsborough-based ID Care. Visit www.idcare.com.

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