Did you know once you get chickenpox the virus stays with you for life? Not only that, but as you reach middle age, the virus can re-emerge as a painful new condition called shingles. About one in three people in the United States will experience shingles during their lifetime. Let’s look at what shingles is, and how to avoid it.
WHAT IS SHINGLES?
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This virus causes chickenpox. In fact, you can’t get shingles unless you’ve previously had chickenpox or if you were vaccinated against chickenpox. Vaccination injects a small amount of the virus into your body.
Once the varicella-zoster virus enters your body, it remains there forever. Usually, it stay dormant and never causes another problem. But sometimes it re-activates. When this happens, you don’t get another case of chickenpox. Instead, you get shingles.
Shingles produces skin blisters and, often, pain. And while there is no cure for shingles, you can get vaccinated to avoid getting the disease or lessen the symptoms if you do come down with it.
SYMPTOMS OF SHINGLES
Many people don’t even notice the typical first sign of shingles: a burning or tingling pain, numbness or itching on a specific patch of skin. Obviously, we all experience symptoms like this from time to time, and the cause isn’t usually shingles.
Within days or weeks of that initial sign, though, shingles will erupt as a rash consisting of fluid-filled blisters. The rash may cover a small or large area of skin, but only on one side of the body. The rash probably will feel very itchy, and you should avoid scratching it. You may also experience pain ranging from mild to intense. For some people, the skin affected by the rash becomes so sensitive that the mere sensation of a breeze is painful.
Early diagnosis is important for accessing effective shingles treatment. The virus can’t be cured, and antibiotics are of no use, but immediate treatment with antiviral drugs may help. If you think you might have shingles, you should call your healthcare provider’s office immediately. They may want you to take special precautions (such as covering all the blisters or using a separate entrance) when you come in for an examination.
You cannot catch shingles from someone who has it. However, if you’ve never had chickenpox (and have never been vaccinated against it), you can get chickenpox from contacting someone who has shingles. Isn’t that an interesting twist?
Shingles is contagious (to those who never had chickenpox) when the blisters are actively weeping. Once the blisters crust over, the virus generally can’t be passed to someone else.
Because the varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox can be passed to others from fluid-filled shingles blisters, you should keep the blisters covered whenever going out in public. This will help you avoid transmitting the virus to others.
If you had chickenpox as a child (or if you received the chickenpox vaccine), you do not risk getting shingles by being in contact with someone who has it, even during the active blisters phase of the disease. If you’ve ever had chickenpox (or were vaccinated for it), you are at risk of developing shingles later in life. People who received the chickenpox vaccine seem to have lower rates of shingles, with less-severe symptoms than people who had an infection by the wild varicella-zoster virus.
You can get vaccinated against shingles to reduce your risk of developing the condition. In fact, the shingles vaccine is recommended for anyone over age 60 and is approved for anyone over age 50. The vaccine may not completely protect you from getting shingles, but symptoms generally aren’t as severe in people who receive the vaccine. Some people should not get the shingles vaccine. These include:
- People with a compromised immune system, such as those with HIV/AIDS
- People who routinely use medications (such as prednisone) that can weaken the immune system
- People undergoing cancer treatment
- People with cancer that affects the bone marrow or lymphatic system
- Pregnant women, or women who might become pregnant
- Anyone with a severe allergy to any of the components of the vaccine, including neomycin and gelatin
SHINGLES: VACCINE IS THE BEST PREVENTION
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates 99% of Americans over age 40 had chickenpox as a child, even if they don’t remember it. That puts millions of people at risk for developing shingles. If you’re over age 50, talk to your healthcare provider about whether or not you should get the shingles vaccine. It’s the only preventive measure you can take.
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