Shingles or herpes zoster is a painful skin rash caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays dormant (inactive) in the body. The virus can reactivate many years later and cause shingles. A shingles rash often includes blisters that usually develop on one side of the face or body and lasts from two to four weeks. Very rarely, a shingles infection can lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, swelling of the brain (encephalitis), or death. As people get older, the chance of getting shingles goes up.
The main symptom of shingles is pain, which can be severe. About one in five people experience severe pain that continues even after the rash clears up. Other symptoms of shingles can include:
- Pain, itching, or tingling in area where the rash will develop
- Upset stomach
The most common complication of shingles is a condition called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). People diagnosed with PHN have severe pain for at least 90 days after the shingles rash has cleared up. The pain can lead to a lower quality of life for many people. As people get older, they are more likely to develop PHN, and the pain is more likely to be severe.
No. You can't catch shingles from another person. However, a person who has never had chickenpox (or received the chickenpox vaccine) could get chickenpox from someone with shingles if they come in direct contact with the fluid from the rash blisters caused by shingles. This, however, is not very common. A person is not infectious before the blisters appear or once the rash has developed crusts. Simply covering the rash will help to stop the spread of the virus to someone who is vulnerable to chickenpox.
You! About 98 percent of adults have had chickenpox and are at risk for shingles. In the United States, at least 1 million people get shingles each year. Shingles is far more common in people age 50 and older than in younger people. About half (500,000) of shingles cases occur in people age 60 or older. It is more common in people who have a weakened immune system because of a disease, such as cancer or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), or from drugs, like steroids or chemotherapy. Anyone can get shingles, though, including children.
Your best chance at preventing shingles is to get vaccinated. There is one vaccine, Shingrix, which is very effective in preventing shingles and complications, including postherpetic neuralgia.
- Shingrix is a recommended vaccine for all adults age 50 years and older whether or not they have had shingles or previously received varicella (chickenpox) vaccine. The vaccine is a series of two doses. The administration of the second dose is given 2 to 6 months after the first dose.
- Get Shingrix vaccine if you are 50 or older (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- About shingles (herpes zoster) (CDC)
- Shingles (herpes zoster) vaccination (CDC)
- Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for Use of Herpes Zoster Vaccines (PDF)
- Protect yourself from shingles...get vaccinated! (Immunization Action Coalition)
- One family's struggles with shingles (Video) (PKIDs Online)