by Michael J. Oehler, MD, Spring Valley Family Practice
Shingles is an infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. After being exposed to or having chickenpox, the virus remains in our nerves for life. Over time, the virus can reactivate and cause a painful rash known as shingles.
Shingles can occur at any age, but it becomes increasingly common as we get older. Additionally, it is possible to develop shingles more than once. Shingles does not spread between people. However, if someone has never had chickenpox or been vaccinated against it, exposure to the shingles rash can cause chickenpox in that person.
Shingles is more common, tends to be more serious, and causes more long-term effects in older people. For these reasons, adults aged 50 and over and people with weakened immune systems should get the shingles vaccine to lower their chances of developing shingles.
Shingles can occur anywhere on the body. In its most harmless form, it appears in a small band on one side of the body. However, shingles can also cause a more widespread rash that may require hospitalization. In very serious cases, it can cause blindness, hearing loss, brain inflammation, and even death.
Shingles can also cause long-term effects. About one in every seven people who get shingles will have pain that persists for a month or more, even after the rash goes away. The pain can last for years, and it can be very intense. Older people with shingles are more likely to have long-term pain from it. If you have shingles, your doctor may prescribe antiviral and pain-relieving medications.
It is best to prevent the infection in the first place by getting the shingles vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the shingles vaccine for everyone aged 50 and older as well as for younger people with weakened immune systems. The current shingles vaccine is called Shingrix.
Without vaccination, about one in every three people will develop shingles in their lifetime. With vaccination, this number is estimated to fall to less than one in every thirty people. The Shingrix vaccine is recommended even if you received an older type of shingles vaccine because it is much more effective at preventing shingles, especially in older people.
In my practice, I regularly see shingles and the long-term pain people can have from it. Unfortunately, I have had patients suffer very serious, permanent repercussions from this infection. This why I encourage all of my patients who are eligible to receive the shingles vaccine during their appointment or at their local pharmacy.