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Sharp Health News

Shingles: chickenpox, back with a vengeance

Dec. 11, 2015

Vaccine may help shingles

While most rash-y afflictions feature itching as the main side effect, the viral infection known as shingles brings with it a host of other more painful consequences. Fortunately, a relatively new vaccine provides the opportunity for prevention.

Shingles is a reactivation of an infection in the nerve roots, usually showing up as painful groups of blisters on the skin. It is caused by the varicella zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox.

Anyone who has had chickenpox in the past can develop shingles. Essentially, after your chickenpox goes away, the virus goes dormant in your nerve roots and, years later, can reappear as shingles. With the involvement of nerves, the condition can be quite painful on the inside, and can include a band of rash on the skin that typically shows up a few days after the pain begins.

Dr. Sangeetha Murthy, an internal medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, says the vaccine is key to shingles prevention.

"The vaccine is the number one way to prevent shingles," says Dr. Murthy. "It is not 100 percent effective, just like any vaccine, but prevents shingles in at least 60 to 80 percent of cases, and can lessen the severity of shingles for those who are affected."

Dr. Murthy says maintaining a healthy lifestyle, eliminating stress (emotional, physical or mental) and not becoming immunocompromised serve as other prevention techniques.

Although anyone can get shingles, those most at risk for shingles are ages 50 and above, as well as individuals who are immunocompromised due to neurological disorders, certain infectious illnesses, rheumatologic diseases or some medications and treatments. It is uncommon for shingles to affect children.

If you develop shingles, a visit to the doctor for antiviral medication is imperative. "Pain medication for pain in the nerve endings can also help," says Dr. Murthy.

Shingles themselves are not contagious, but the underlying virus can be. It is important for anyone with shingles to stay away from others who have not had chicken pox or who are not immunized against chickenpox, as their shingles can cause chickenpox in those not immune to it.

The shingles vaccine is a live virus vaccine (Zostavax), meaning you can be contagious to those not immunized against chickenpox for up to two weeks. It should not be given at the same time as other inactivated vaccines. There's a newer vaccine (Shingrix), a non-live subunit vaccine that may soon be available that has shown greater effectiveness in the 90 percent range.

Remember, an ounce of prevention can prevent a good deal of pain. If you are interested in the shingles vaccine, talk with your doctor.

This story was updated in March 2018.

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