Shingles is caused by a virus known as the varicella-zoster virus. It is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Once you get chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus lays dormant in your body, aka takes a nap, until the virus reactivates or wakes up causing shingles. About 1 in 3 people in the US will develop shingles according to the CDC. Here is what you need to know about shingles prevention, symptoms, and other important aspects of this illness.
What are the symptoms of shingles?
You will know when the virus wakes up! Shingles usually starts as a painful area on one side of the body that then develops into a strip of a blister-like, painful rash. The rash can be accompanied by fever, achiness, headache, fatigue and sensitivity to light. The blisters will break open and then crust over in around 7-10 days. Shingles can last 2-4 weeks. It can make you miserable and very uncomfortable. Not everyone will present with the same symptoms. Some people do not develop a rash, and some will get a rash over the face instead of the back or chest or arms/legs.
Can I catch shingles from someone with shingles?
Ok, get ready for this super confusing statement. You may have to read this a few times:
You can only get shingles if you have had the chickenpox or chickenpox vaccine in the past. Once your body has had exposure to the virus that causes chickenpox in any way, the virus becomes dormant and sleeps in your body until it wakes up again as shingles.You can not catch shingles from someone with the shingles. Shingles only appears when it wakes up in your body, usually when you are older, run down or stressed.
You CAN however get chickenpox from someone with shingles since it is the same virus, IF that is, you haven’t gotten chickenpox before or haven’t been vaccinated. Phew!
- If you or your child HAVE NEVER HAD the chickenpox (or the vaccine), don’t hang with anyone who has shingles
- If you or your child HAVE HAD the chickenpox (or the vaccine), you can hang with someone who has shingles— you won’t catch shingles or chickenpox!
When I say “hang” I mean don’t get near the fluid blisters or touch them. The virus is spread by direct contact with blister fluid. It is important to keep the blisters covered especially if you are around babies who have not been vaccinated yet or adults who have never gotten the chickenpox vaccine or chickenpox.
If you are around someone with shingles, they are most contagious when they have blisters. The virus is not contagious prior to blisters developing nor after the blisters crust over. Do not touch the blisters! I mean, who would do that? But babies or unsuspecting adults might get close enough to get exposed to the blisters and the shingles virus. If you have shingles, keep the blisters covered, avoid scratching the rash and wash your hands well and often. Avoid coming in contact with newborns, with pregnant people who have not had the chickenpox or the vaccine, and with immunocompromised people such as the elderly, people with HIV, those with cancer or with chronic illnesses, or people who take immunosuppressant medications or steroids.
What happens if I get shingles?
Shingles is painful and you can be pretty miserable when you have it, but once it goes away you should be ok. It usually resolves within 2-4 weeks. Now, the virus is worse for adults over 60 years of age, and especially those with complicated health problems, those on certain medications, and those who are immunocompromised.
One complication that is more common over the age of 60 years is post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). This is when the pain from shingles lasts longer than the illness lasts. Once shingles clears, the pain should clear as well. If not, you may have PHN. It is best to follow up with your provider for any pain that persists after the blisters crust over, or pain that lasts more than 2 months.
Shingles prevention— Is there a shingles vaccine?
YES! There is now a shingles vaccine to help with shingles prevention. Zostavax and Shingrix are shingles vaccines recommended for all adults over 60 years of age. Getting the shingles vaccine is thought to provide protection for about 5 years. The vaccine reduces the risk for getting shingles by 50%, and post-herpetic neuraliga by 67%, according to the CDC. The shingles vaccine is recommended for anyone over the age of 60 years for shingles prevention, even if you don’t recall getting the chickenpox.
Remember, you can’t get shingles if you haven’t gotten chickenpox (or the chickenpox vaccine) but almost everyone over the age of 40 years of age has gotten the chickenpox! Hello?! chickenpox parties anyone? You don’t hear about chickenpox much anymore, but those younger than 40 years of age likely got the chickenpox vaccine, and some of us, good old fashioned pox. No offense to those over 60, but it’s during those “older” years that you need extra protection.
Is there treatment for shingles?
There is no treatment to completely eradicate the virus, but there is medication called an antiviral medicine that can weaken it. Antiviral medications can reduce the symptoms that you experience and may shorten the duration of the illness. Using steroids along with antivirals can help with inflammation and pain. You will need to start these medications right away. Antiviral medications work best when started ASAP. Call your provider right away as soon as you think you may have shingles. Let us help you figure out if your symptoms could be shingles.
Shingles can be painful and itchy. Using a bag of cold peas or a bag of ice can help relieve some of the pain and itching. But don’t feed the peas to unvaccinated baby Sue…make sure to toss them after! Also:
- A lukewarm oatmeal bath can provide some relief to the rash.
- Some people suggest using calamine lotion for itching and the blistery rash.
- Wearing socks over your hands may prevent you from scratching the blisters in your sleep.
Rest, good nutrition and lots of fluids can also help you recover faster as your body fights the virus! Take care of yourself and your body. Don’t hesitate to chat with us if you have any questions!
Kim Liner, RN, MSN, CPNP
Nurse-1-1 Health Center is written by nurses in a straight to the point type of way to provide basic health information. We get a lot of people like you searching online for answers to health concerns or looking for a hotline to ask a nurse a few questions. Questions like is there a Coronavirus vaccine? What should parents know about screen time for toddlers? Do I have a cold sore or a canker, and is it contagious? Well we can help. We put some info here for you to find while searching through all that other dry, scary medical information online. Stop that. Read our posts, or chat with us. This is not medical advice or a replacement for medical care, but see what we have to say with our free health information, and hopefully it will stop you from scaring yourself any more than you already have. We can help.