Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a common viral infection of the nerves that results in a painful rash or small blisters on an area of skin anywhere on the body. Early signs of shingles include burning or shooting pain and tingling or itching, usually on one side of the body or face. Even after the rash is gone, the pain can continue for months, even years.
Shingles and chickenpox arise from the same virus, varicella-zoster, a member of the herpes family. The virus remains dormant in your nerve cells long after the chickenpox disappear. In 20 to 30 percent of the population, it can reawaken with a vengeance many years later, causing a painful rash along the pathway of the affected nerve.
In the acute phase, which lasts 10 to 14 days, the rash blisters and is painful, says neurologist John Castaldo, MD, with Lehigh Valley Health Network. “Shingles isn’t contagious, but during this phase you can transmit chickenpox to a person who has never had it.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 1 million people will develop shingles each year in the United States. You’re more likely to get shingles if your immune system is compromised by some other illness, chemotherapy, steroids or aging. About half of the cases diagnosed each year are in people over age 60.
The best treatment for shingles is prevention. Because shingles affects only those who’ve had chickenpox, the chickenpox vaccine has reduced the incidence of both diseases. All children should be vaccinated against chickenpox, as should adults who haven’t yet had it. In 2006, the FDA approved a shingles vaccine, called Zostavax, which is recommended for adults age 60 and older, even if they don’t recall having chickenpox. (The vaccine is not approved for younger people.) The shingles vaccine is at least 50 percent effective; however, its effectiveness is reduced as age increases, reports the CDC.