Learn more about this painful, rash-causing viral infection and how to prevent it.
Shingles is a painful localized skin rash that one in three Americans will develop in their lifetime. The rash is caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV) which is left dormant in the nerve cells of the body after recovering from chickenpox. It is not known what causes the VZV to re-activate, but chances of re-activation increase with age.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated one million people suffer an episode of shingles every year. Approximately half of these cases are in men and women over the age of 60; however it is possible for children and middle-aged adults to develop shingles. It is uncommon for one person to experience shingles more than once in a lifetime, but second and third cases do occur.
The CDC describes the lifecycle of shingles as typically forming on one side of the torso or face accompanied by pain, itching or tingling followed by a painful rash of blister-like sores that scab over in 7-10 days. These usually take 2-4 weeks to completely clear up. Other symptoms include a fever, headache, chills and upset stomach. People more susceptible to shingles are those with immune-weakening conditions such as leukemia and lymphoma, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), or people who receive immunosuppressive drugs.
The transmission of shingles is unique in that it cannot be passed from person to person; however, if someone who has never had chickenpox comes in contact with shingles, VZV could develop chickenpox. The overall risk of spreading VZV is low when the rash is covered. It is not contagious before blisters appear and after they have scabbed over.
Longer-term implications of shingles can include a condition called post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), which causes severe pain where the rash occurred that can last several weeks, months or in some cases many years. Age also plays a role in the chances of developing PHN — the CDC says it is rare amongst those under 40 years old, but can develop in up to a third of untreated people 60 or older.
It is possible, although rare, that shingles can lead to serious complications like pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation, and even death.
Fortunately there is a shingles vaccine available. It is a single-injection, one-time vaccination that can prevent shingles. In cases where the vaccine doesn’t prevent shingles the symptoms will likely be weaker, the duration likely shortened and there is a decrease in the chances of developing long-term complications.
The vaccine loses its effectiveness over time, and because it is a one-time vaccine the CDC only recommends people 60 years and older get the shot. This maximizes its effectiveness during the years when the risk of contracting shingles and resulting long-term complications are greatest.
If you are not sure whether or not you’ve had chickenpox, getting vaccinated is still recommended, as an estimated 99% of Americans 40 and older have had chickenpox, even if they don’t remember having them.
When discussing if the shingles vaccine is right for you with your Sam’s Club Pharmacist be sure to consider the following health conditions which may indicate you should not receive the shot: Any life-threatening or severe allergic reaction to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin. Any severe allergies. You should not get the vaccine if you have a weakened immune system due to HIV/ AIDS, treatment with drugs affecting the immune system, radiation or chemotherapy, cancer affecting the bone marrow or lymphatic system, or if you are, or might become, pregnant.