What You Need to Know about Shingles
If you had chickenpox in your childhood, you probably thought you’ve already seen the worst of it. After all, once someone has had chickenpox, a condition caused by the varicella-zoster virus, they will not get chickenpox again.
But now for the sobering fact: if you had chickenpox, you can also get shingles. This is because the chickenpox and shingles are caused by the same varicella virus. Although you may have recovered from chickenpox 60 years ago, the virus always remains dormant in the nervous system and can resurface later in life as shingles.
Can I get shingles?
About one-third of the U.S. population will develop shingles in their lifetime. Shingles can affect anyone who has had chickenpox at any time. However, it is more severe in people who are 60 years and older.
- It is not known what reactivates the virus, so you may develop shingles at anytime.
- The risk of complications rises after 60 years of age.
- Immediate treatment can reduce the pain and the length of time the outbreak lasts.
- Getting vaccinated prevents you from developing the shingles.
If you never had chickenpox, you cannot get shingles. That said, studies show that more than 99% of Americans aged 40 and older have had chickenpox, even if they don’t remember getting the disease.
How do I know if I have the shingles and what should I do?
“Shingles is a reactivated virus which often causes pain and skin lesions,” says Asfana Alam, DO, MPH, a family medicine doctor at NewYork-Presbyterian Medical Group Hudson Valley. The rash usually presents on one side of the body with an eruption of little blisters called vesicles, which causes fever and inflammation.
- Rash consisting of blisters
“If shingles is caught early—within the first 72 hours of the rash, we can treat it with anti-viral medication,” says Dr. Alam. “Without treatment, the rash usually goes away within two weeks. But, some people develop a condition called called postherpetic neuralgia — a persistent pain in the area of the rash even after it has cleared up — which can last for months and, in rare cases, years,” Dr. Alam says.
Shingles can only be spread to someone who never had chickenpox – and it actually causes chickenpox, not shingles. However, the only way it is spread is through direct contact with the fluid from the blistery rashes.
Fortunately, medications are available that can both shorten the duration of the rash and decrease the likelihood of postherpetic neuralgia if given quickly.
Get the vaccine
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend everyone 50 and older get the vaccine whether or not they recall having had chickenpox. There are two vaccine options — Shingrix and Zostavax.
Shingrix is the recommended vaccine by the CDC. However, both vaccines are approved for the prevention of shingles. Although recurrence of shingles is uncommon, if you had the outbreak, you should still receive the vaccine to help prevent new outbreaks. Please note that even if you get the vaccine, it is possible that you can still get shingles, though it will be milder.
If you are 50 or older, schedule an appointment to get the shingles vaccine today. Dr. Asfana Alam is a Family Medicine Physician practicing with NewYork-Presbyterian Medical Group Hudson Valley in Cold Spring. To make an appointment, call 914-233-3022.
At NewYork-Presbyterian Medical Group Hudson Valley, our doctors include primary care, OB/GYN, cardiology, orthopedics and more, and offer same-day, early, late and weekend appointments. To find a physician close to home, search here or or call 914-787-2200.