What is Shingles and How Can You Avoid Getting It?

If you’ve ever had chickenpox, you may have heard that you now have immunity and will never catch it again. While you won’t get chickenpox again, having chickenpox puts you at risk for developing a second illness as you age: shingles.

Both chickenpox and shingles are caused by a virus called varicella-zoster. Once your chickenpox infection is over, the virus can remain in your nervous system for several years. With time, it can reactivate later in your life as shingles.

Shingles is a serious medical condition with many symptoms, such as a burning pain that occurs on one side of your body in small patches. It can also cause a rash that can appear anywhere from your face to your torso.

Doctors still don’t know what causes the virus to reactive and infect someone with shingles. However, it’s more common than you might think.

There are approximately one million cases of shingles in the United States each year. Nearly one in three people in the country will get the virus at some point in their lives. Learn what the symptoms are and how to treat it below.

Symptoms of Shingles

In rare cases and in serious complications, shingles can cause a rash or pain around your eye. The rash may appear as fluid-filled blisters that easily break. If this happens, it needs to be treated as soon as possible in order to prevent permanent eye damage.

You could experience a loss of hearing, an intense pain in one ear, a loss of taste, dizziness or swelling. In extremely rare cases, shingles can lead to blindness, hearing problems, pneumonia, inflammation of the brain and even death.

Other possible symptoms of shingles include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • A headache
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • A fever

In most situations, the first symptom of shingles is pain. Unfortunately, pain is a generic symptom. Doctors and patients commonly mistake shingles-induced pain for either heart, lungs or kidney diseases.

Some people with shingles do not experience any pain. However, they may develop a strong rash shaped like a stripe of blisters around their stomachs.

Who gets shingles?

If you have had chickenpox, you can get shingles. However, there are certain factors that affect your risk of developing the disease. The following types of people are most vulnerable to the virus:

  • Those with diseases that cause a weakness of the immune system, such as cancer, HIV and AIDS.
  • Those who have had radiation treatment or chemotherapy.
  • Those who take drugs that affect the immune system.
  • Those who are 60 years of age and older.

Older adults are particularly prone to getting shingles. In fact, out of the one in three people who get shingles at some point in their lifetimes, approximately half are 60 years of age or older.

This is because seniors’ immune systems are more likely to be compromised. Additionally, seniors are more likely to have complications from shingles than other people.

Related Article: Why Seniors Need Regular Medical Check-Ups

If you suspect you have shingles, you need to see your doctor at the earliest opportunity to get diagnosed. Your doctor must perform a physical examination to check for blisters and rashes.

He or she may ask you questions pertaining to your medical history. Occasionally, your doctor may need to take a skin or fluid sample from your blisters as well.

Doctors will use a sterile swab to complete this portion of the exam. The sample will then be sent to a medical laboratory to confirm or deny the presence of shingles.

How to Prevent Shingles

If you are over 60 years of age, you can receive a shingles vaccine called the recombinant zoster vaccine (RZV), also known as Shingrix. Children can receive two doses of the varicella vaccine, which protects against chickenpox.

Adults under the age of 60 who have never had chickenpox can get either the chickenpox vaccine or the shingles vaccine. Doctors recommend that all adults 50 and older get the Shingrix vaccine, even if they have not had chickenpox.

Shingles is highly contagious. If you become infected, you must take steps to prevent it from spreading. This includes frequently washing your hands and keeping the rash covered.

Additionally, avoid contact with people who have a weak immune system or anyone who has never had chickenpox. These individuals are more likely to contract the disease and experience symptoms.

Shingles and Pregnancy

Although it is unusual to get shingles when you are pregnant, it is possible. Because chickenpox and shingles are contagious, make sure you avoid anyone with the infections if you have not previously had chickenpox or if you have not been vaccinated.

If you do get chickenpox when you are pregnant, it can sometimes result in birth defects. Getting the chickenpox vaccine before pregnancy is important to protect your baby.

If you get a rash during your pregnancy, make sure you see your doctor straight away. If you contract shingles while you are pregnant, you can obtain anti-viral medications you can take during pregnancy to help fight off your symptoms.

Treating Shingles

Although there is no cure for shingles, you can be prescribed medication to help ease the symptoms and shorten the duration of the infection. The type of medicine you use is determined by your symptoms.

Prescribed medications include the following options:

  • Narcotic medications or analgesics, which help with pain reduction.
  • Anti-inflammation drugs, such as ibuprofen, which help with both pain and swelling.
  • Anti-viral medications, such as valacyclovir, acyclovir and famciclovir. These reduce the pain and speed up recovery time.
  • Anticonvulsants or tricyclic antidepressants, which are used to treat prolonged pain.
  • Antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine. These are used to treat itching from rashes.
  • Numbing gels, creams or patches, such as lidocaine. These help to reduce the pain.
  • Capsaicin, which helps to reduce the risk of getting a nerve pain called post-herpetic neuralgia after you have recovered from shingles.

Other ways of treating shingles include getting lots of rest and applying cold and wet patches to the rash. You can also take colloidal oatmeal baths and apply calamine lotion to reduce the itching.

It is important to monitor your shingles to make sure no complications occur. Generally, shingles clears up after a few weeks and it rarely reoccurs. If your symptoms do not improve after 10 days, you must contact your doctor.

Related Article: Immunizations as Preventative Care

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