According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one out of every three people in the United States will develop shingles, or herpes zoster. While the risk of this disease is greatest in the elderly population, anyone who has had chickenpox, including children, are at some risk. About half of all cases occur among people of both sexes who are 60 years old and older. There are approximately 1 million cases each year in the U.S.
Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. When a person recovers from chickenpox, this virus remains in the body in a dormant or inactive state. While researchers are uncertain as to why it becomes active again, if and when it does, it will surface as shingles.
Fever, headache, chills and upset stomach may accompany the onset of shingles, but the most significant sign is a painful rash on one side of the body or face. This rash will form blisters that usually scab over within 10 days and clear up within two to four weeks.
Prior to the rash, there is often pain, itching or tingling in the area where the rash will ultimately develop. This sensation may occur anywhere from one to five days before the rash shows up. Usually, the rash appears in a single stripe around one side of the body or face. In very rare cases, shingles can affect the eyes as well.
A bit of good news is that shingles cannot be spread from one individual to another. However, the virus can be spread, and the newly infected individual might develop chickenpox, but would not develop shingles. This virus is spread through direct contact with the fluid from the rash blisters, and not through sneezing, coughing or casual contact. While shingles is contagious, it is less so than chickenpox and the risk is minimized if the blisters are kept covered.
If you develop shingles, to prevent spreading the disease, you should keep the rash covered, wash hands frequently, don’t scratch or touch the rash, and avoid contact with infants and pregnant women.
Treatment of shingles is by antiviral medicines, such as acyclovir, valacyclovir and famcyclovir. These medications help to shorten the length and severity of the illness, but must be started immediately after the rash appears. Analgesics may be used to help relieve the pain, as well as wet compresses, calamine lotion and colloidal oatmeal baths. If you think you may have shingles, contact your healthcare provider immediately.
Prevention can only be accomplished by getting vaccinated with Zostravax. This vaccine is recommended for all persons 60 years of age and older, whether or not they can remember having had chickenpox, as studies show that 99% of Americans 40 years of age and older have had the disease. The vaccine is most effective for persons between 60 and 69 years old, and lasts at least six years.
You should not take the vaccine if you have a weakened immune system due to HIV/AIDS, takesteroids, receive cancer treatment such as radiation or chemotherapy, or have a history of leukemia or lymphoma.