Those with weak immune systems as well as older people are at greater risk of suffering from shingles than those in good health. If someone is suffering from a disease such as cancer or HIV, or is taking certain drugs such as steroids, that person is more likely to come down with the shingles virus. Once Varicella-Zoster is in the body, it can remain inactive for years, and then show up at any point, causing the shingles rash to appear.
The odds of contracting shingles are somewhat low. Still, around one million people this year in the United States will develop the rash. This means that one out of every three people will suffer from shingles this year.
A few symptoms to watch out for if you are concerned about the shingles virus are headache, chills, and possibly an upset stomach. You will notice a painful rash on one side of your face or body that is itchy and tingles. It also may resemble a chicken pox rash. About one to five days before the rash shows up on your face or body, you might feel the itching and tingling.
The rash will scab over within a week to ten days, and after two weeks, shingles should be gone.
It is a common misconception that people with shingles can pass the virus on to other people and give them shingles. This is not true. While the Varicella-Zoster virus can spread to someone who has never had chicken pox, the receiver will develop chicken pox, not shingles. Once the shingles rash has cleared, some people can have complications. One of them is a condition called postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN. It can cause crippling pain in the areas on the body where the shingles rash once was, and can last from weeks to months to years. This condition affects mostly older people and those suffering from ill health or weakened immune systems. The more severe complications of shingles include blindness, brain inflammation, pneumonia, or in very rare cases, death.
The only way to prevent shingles from developing is to get vaccinated. Zostavax was introduced in 2006 to reduce the risk of getting shingles, as well as to reduce the pain it can cause in older people. It is recommended for people who have had chicken pox and for people who have already had a case of shingles.
In Vermont, Zostavax is free for people ages 60 to 64. If you are 65 or older with Medicare, the type of Medicare coverage you have will determine your out-of-pocket cost for the vaccine. Before the age of 60, your cost will depend on your insurance plan.
If you do get shingles, certain pain medications will help to ease the discomfort of the rash. Antiviral medications also are available to shorten the duration of the rash and can help make the effects milder. However, it is important to note that you would need to begin taking the antiviral medications within 48 to 72 hours of developing the rash.
Shingles and its after-effects can be debilitating. If you would like to know more about the vaccination and whether it is right for you, be sure to speak with your health care provider.
Beth Stacy, NP, is a nurse practitioner at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center's Northshire Campus in Manchester. "Health Matters" is a weekly column from Southwestern Vermont Health Care (SVHC) meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care. To learn more about SVHC, visit svhealthcare.org or their Facebook page.