We should always try to be diligent when it comes to avoiding viruses. But sometimes, a virus we contracted years ago can remain dormant in our bodies until our immune system is weak. That is when these viruses seize the opportunity and strike. Shingles is such a virus.
Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus. It is the same virus that causes chickenpox in children, and it reactivate as a painful rash that develops on one side of the face or body. There may be pain, itching or tingling before the rash develops.
“If you’ve ever had chickenpox, you can get shingles,” said Jason Scheid, director of ambulatory pharmacy for OSF HealthCare. “Even children can get shingles, but your risk of shingles increases as you get older or your immune system weakens.”
Most people will present with a painful rash on their face or body. The rash will develop into blisters and scab over as shingles progresses but usually clears up over a few weeks. Other symptoms may include fever, headache, chills or upset stomach.
“Unfortunately, even after the initial rash clears, there is a possibility the pain can linger for weeks, months or even years,” Jason said.
The rash and accompanying symptoms are usually distinct enough to diagnose shingles at presentation, but lab tests are available if further investigation is needed.
The most common complication from shingles is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). It is long-term nerve pain after the rash clears up and can be severe enough to impact your daily life.
“The older you are when you get shingles, the greater the risk for PHN,” Jason said. “If the rash presents on the face, there is also a risk of impacting your eye and causing vision problems or even vision loss, so it is essential to be evaluated right away. There is also the potential for rashes and open lesions to become infected.”
Treatment with antiviral medications can shorten the length and severity of the infection and reduce the risk of future complications. These treatments are most effective if started within three days of the rash developing, so it is important to call your health care provider if you suspect shingles.
Oral or topical medications may also be prescribed to help with the painful rash. Other medications are available if they are needed for more severe nerve pain.
What you need to know
“Getting the shingles vaccine when you are eligible is the best way to protect yourself from shingles,” Jason said. “Even if you previously received Zostavax vaccine in the past (an older shingles vaccine no longer available), Shingrix can provide additional protection and is still recommended for vaccination.”
The Shingrix vaccine is approved for adults age 50 years and older. It is a two-dose series and is available at most OSF HealthCare provider offices and also at community pharmacies. The vaccine is more than 90% effective at preventing shingles.
Shingrix is in high demand, and this has led to shortages at times. Call ahead to see if it’s available and ask to be added to the list if there’s a wait.