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What is shingles, who is at risk and what are its symptoms?

You’ve most likely heard of shingles – maybe your coworker has mentioned having a bout of it, or you’ve seen a commercial regarding treatment for a shingles outbreak. However, if you were born before 1995 (when the chickenpox vaccine was released) it’s worthy to become more knowledgeable about the shingles virus.  The reason: these two conditions come from the same virus.

Shingles overview

Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus — the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you've had chickenpox, the virus retreats to nerve tissues near your spinal cord and brain. Years later, the virus may “wake up” and reactivate as shingles.  It presents itself as painful rash, most commonly appearing as a single stripe of blisters that wraps around either side of your torso (although shingles can occur anywhere on your body).

Who is most at risk?

Anyone who has contracted chickenpox is at risk for shingles. You are more likely to get shingles if you are:

  • 50 or older
  • Have certain diseases that weaken your immune system, such as HIV/AIDS and cancer
  • Undergoing cancer treatments such as radiation or chemotherapy, which can lower your resistance to diseases and may trigger shingles.
  • Under a lot of stress
  • Take long-term steroids or other medicines that can weaken your immune system

Symptoms

While it isn't a life-threatening condition, shingles can be extremely painful.  As mentioned, it typically affects one side of the body.  The signs/symptoms of shingles includes:

  • Pain
  • A red rash that develops a few days after the pain
  • Burning, numbness or tingling
  • Fever, chills, or headache
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Fluid-filled blisters
  • Itching

Pain is usually the first symptom of shingles, and for some people it can be extreme. Also, some people experience shingles pain without developing a rash. Call your doctor quickly if you have any of these signs. Shingles can’t be cured once you’re infected, but treatment can lessen the symptoms, length and severity.

Is there a vaccine to protect against shingles?

Shingles is contagious — an infected person may spread the varicella zoster virus to people who’ve never had chickenpox and haven’t been vaccinated. The FDA approved two shingles vaccines, Shingrix and Zostavax. Shingrix is newer and is preferred over Zostavax because it is considered 90% effective. It is recommended people 50 and older get vaccinated, even if you’ve had shingles before.

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