Shingles, also called herpes zoster, is a disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person has chickenpox (usually in childhood) the virus becomes inactive and stays in specific cells in the body. For most people, the immune system keeps the virus in these cells. However, as people age or if the immune system weakens, the virus can be reactivated and cause shingles. While shingles is not contagious, people who have not had chickenpox or have not received the chickenpox vaccine can catch chickenpox from a person with shingles.
Can shingles be prevented?
The only way to reduce the risk of developing shingles is to get vaccinated. A one-time shingles vaccine (Zostavax®) is recommended for people 60 or older, even if they have had shingles. Sometimes doctors recommend it for people age 50 to 59.
Some people will develop shingles even if they get the vaccination, but the vaccine may reduce the length and severity of the shingles episode. There are certain people who should not have the shingles vaccine. Talk with your healthcare professional if you have questions about the shingles vaccine.
Is the vaccine covered by insurance? Where can I get vaccinated?
The cost of the shingles vaccine may not be covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or insurance. Check with your health plan and look into a vaccine assistance program if you are concerned about out-of-pocket cost. Check with your Rite Aid Pharmacist or visit www.riteaid.com (select “Vaccine Central” under the “Pharmacy” tab) to find out if they offer the vaccine.
What are the signs and symptoms of shingles?
Shingles causes a painful, blistering rash. Early signs of shingles (before the rash appears) may include
burning or shooting pain, tingling, itching, or very sensitive skin. These early signs usually occur on one side of the body or face. They may come and go or be constant, and can occur from 1 to 14 days before the rash appears.
The shingles rash first appears as reddish bumps that turn into clear, fluid-filled blisters after a few days. The blisters cause stinging or burning pain that ranges from mild to severe. Within 7 to 10 days, the blisters turn yellow or bloody before they eventually scab (or crust) over. The rash usually goes away completely within 2 to 4 weeks.
Other symptoms that may accompany shingles include fever, headache, chills, nausea, diarrhea, upset stomach, and difficulty urinating.
What is the treatment for shingles?
There is no cure for shingles, but early treatment with medicines may shorten the length and severity of the episode. Medicine may also prevent or reduce complications, such as lingering pain after the rash resolves (a condition called post-herpetic neuralgia).
If you think you may have shingles, contact your healthcare provider right away to discuss treatment options:
- Anti-viral medicine may help shorten the length and severity of illness, and prevent lingering pain. These medicines work better if they are taken during the first 3 days after the appearance of the rash.
- Pain medicine (over the counter or prescription) may help relieve the pain caused by shingles.
- A nerve block shot with a numbing medicine and sometimes a corticosteroid may be given for intense pain.
- Steroid medicine is sometimes prescribed by doctors to help with pain and swelling and to reduce the risk of developing certain complications. However, this treatment is not common because it can make the rash spread.
Ask your doctor about what treatments are right for you and be sure to discuss possible side effects of any recommended medicines.
What else can I do to manage shingles?
In addition to taking medications, here are some additional ways to manage the pain and discomfort of shingles:
- Cool the rash with ice packs, cool wet cloths, or cool baths
- Cover the rash with loose, non-stick sterile bandages
- Wear loose, cotton clothing
- Apply calamine lotion or take a colloidal oatmeal bath to relieve itching
Shingles, American Academy of Family Physicians
Shingles, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research
Shingles, Medline Plus
Shingles (Herpes Zoster) Overview, Centers for Disease Control
Shingles: Signs and Symptoms, American Academy of Dermatology
Shingles: Tips, American Academy of Dermatology
Shingles Vaccination: What Everyone Should Know, Centers for Disease Control