Straight Talk on Shingles

By Megan Roessler

They say things get better with age. A fine cheddar, or perhaps an artisanal wine. The varicella zoster virus though, not so much. Manifesting initially as chicken pox, it lays dormant in the tissue surrounding the spinal cord, often for years. Sometimes, the virus reactivates as shingles, resulting in an itchy and painful rash around one side of the face or body. Although shingles is notoriously unpleasant, through awareness and action, you can help protect yourself and those around you.

Shingles is easily recognized and identified—it starts off as tingling nerve pain. Dr. Kenneth Felz of Unity Point Health– Meriter says, “Nerve pain tends to be burning or electrical. It’s pretty distinct.” This pain is followed by a rash which initially presents as small blisters described, poetically, as “dewdrops on a rose petal.” The rash can be infectious to those not immune to chicken pox for several days until it has scabbed over, and will settle down in about a week. Sometimes, a person will develop postherpetic neuralgia—a condition where the nerve pain associated with shingles lasts for months to years after the rash has subsided, Felz says.

Shingles can develop in anyone who has had chicken pox, although risk increases after age 50 and it is most common in people over 60. Felz says that, “the widest spread misconception is that you can get shingles from someone who has it.” One can develop shingles on their own, but will not get it from someone else. Felz adds that if a person is simply in a room with someone who has the rash, contracting the virus is extremely rare. Rather, if a person without immunity to chicken pox comes in contact with the shingles rash in its first few days, they may develop chicken pox.

There are currently two vaccines offered for shingles: Zostravax and Shingrix. Shingrix, the newer, headline-making vaccine approved by the CDC in October 2017, is effective in 85 percent of patients, and is recommended for those over 50. It is especially noteworthy both because of its effectiveness and because it doesn’t contain a live virus, meaning that it can be given to people with weakened immune systems who were previously unable to get Zostravax.

If you think you might have the symptoms of shingles, contact your doctor right away. If caught early enough, an antiviral medication can stop the rash and infection, and there’s medication to stop the nerve pain. Better yet, take precautions to prevent shingles in the first place by getting vaccinated.