Shingles: The Sleeping Virus

Shingles: The Sleeping Virus

How much do you know about shingles? You may have heard it is a painful rash that is more  common among older adults. What you may not know is how common it is.

Nearly one in three Americans will suffer a bout with shingles. Even children can contract it.

What is Shingles?

Shingles is a viral infection. The same virus (varicella zoster) that causes chickenpox triggers shingles. If you’ve had chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in your body. If it becomes active again later, it causes shingles.

While shingles isn’t life-threatening, it can be very uncomfortable. Its painful rash can appear anywhere on your body, but it most often occurs as a cluster of blisters on the left or right side of  the torso. Other symptoms can include a fever, headache and upset stomach.

Who Can Get Shingles?

Anyone who has had chickenpox or received the chickenpox vaccine can get shingles. Your chances of getting shingles do increase as you get older, though. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly half of all people who get shingles are over the age of 60. Other risk factors can include a weakened immune system caused by conditions such as cancer, HIV and AIDS and the use of certain medications such as steroids and anti-rejection drugs that help prevent the body’s rejection of transplanted organs.

How Does it Spread?

The only way you can get shingles is if you’ve had chickenpox before. You cannot “catch” shingles from someone else. If you’ve never had chickenpox, coming into contact with the shingles rash may cause chickenpox. To prevent this, anyone with shingles should keep their rash covered, avoid scratching or touching  it, and wash their hands regularly.

How is Shingles Treated?

Since shingles is caused by a virus, there is no magic pill or treatment to get rid of it. Your doctor can give you medication to speed up the healing process. To help with pain, your doctor may also prescribe pain medications and soothing creams for the rash.

Shingles usually lasts between two and six weeks. It’s possible that you can get shingles more than once, but most people usually get it only once.

Can Shingles be Prevented?

The only way to protect yourself from shingles is to get vaccinated. The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 60 get the shingles vaccine, even if you have had shingles before. Talk  with your doctor if you have any questions about the shingles vaccine or would like to get it.

Sources: Shingles, leaving site icon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020; Shingles, leaving site icon Mayo Clinic, 2020.

Originally published 2/9/2016; Revised 2021