If we were to create a list of strange names for diseases, the shingles virus would likely top that list. The name of the disease conjures up an image of a person with painful layered scales growing out of his skin. In actuality, shingles, also known as the herpes zoster virus, is a very painful rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox in younger people. If you’ve ever had chickenpox, unfortunately you are now at risk for also contracting shingles, usually as an older adult. The risk of developing shingles increases with age; as many as half of all adults are diagnosed with the shingles virus by age 80.
As many as an estimated one million cases of shingles in the United States are diagnosed each year. For this reason, the CDC, and AAging Better In-Home Care, strongly urge all seniors age 60 and over to receive the shingles vaccine, regardless of whether or not they previously had chickenpox. Viewing photos or seeing ads on TV of people with shingles is one way to encourage people to get a shingles vaccine to prevent this unsightly and often quite painful disease.
How do you know if someone has shingles? One way to determine if an older adult has shingles is if he or she had chickenpox at any time in the past, and now has developed a rash of blisters filled with liquid on the skin. Although these blisters almost always are evident on only one side of the body and in a specific area, they can also be distributed in patches or create a continuous band. The rash ranges from irritating or itchy to extremely painful and can last up to 30 days before fully resolving. For many people, the pain caused by the rash decreases as the lesions begin to heal and dry up. Additional symptoms can include fever, headache, nausea and chills.
One can also get other complications from having had the shingles virus. For example, if the shingles rash occurs around an eye or on the face, it could affect the person’s eyes and vision. The most common complication of shingles is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN is a condition of persistent, lingering pain in the area where the rash used to be, and can last as long as weeks, months, and sometimes even years after the rash is gone.
Shingles cannot be passed on to another person; however, someone with active shingles can transmit the virus to someone who has never had chickenpox, resulting in that person coming down with the chickenpox virus. The virus spreads through direct contact with the rash blisters' fluid only, and not through sneezing or coughing; and the person with shingles is not contagious before the blisters appear or after they have crusted over.
If you have further questions or concerns about shingles, talk to your doctor or health provider about a vaccine or for further information.