Many of us remember the misery of catching the chickenpox before there was a vaccine. The itching, fever, and aches that lasted several days were a hallmark of many childhoods. Happily, most people who caught the chicken pox developed lifetime immunity, meaning they would never catch it again. And today, a chickenpox vaccine makes the disease much less common in our country.
Unfortunately, though, that’s only part of the story. If you had chickenpox in your lifetime, the virus is still in your body. And in some people, this virus, known as varicella-zoster, can “reactivate” and cause shingles, a skin rash that can cause intense pain that lasts weeks or even months. It’s estimated that nearly one-third of all people in the U.S. will get shingles.
Who’s at risk of getting shingles?
Experts don’t know why some people get shingles and others don’t. What is known, however, is that anyone who’s had the chickenpox is susceptible. It does seem to flare up when the immune system is compromised from illness or certain medications, and it’s most common in adults over the age of 60.
Shingles symptoms and complications
Shingles appears as a blistery rash, generally wrapping around one side of your body like a stripe, although it can appear anywhere. It may also cause flu-like symptoms including fever, upset stomach, and headache. The rash typically crusts over within 10 days, and disappears by two weeks.
Unlike regular chickenpox, shingles tends to be extremely painful. Some people develop a complication known as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), which causes often severe pain in the area of shingles long after the rash has cleared.
How can I prevent shingles?
The only effective way to help prevent shingles is with a shingles vaccine. It can cut your chances of getting shingles by about half, and may make your case less severe if you do get it. If you are over the age of 60 and you’ve had the chickenpox, the CDC recommends you get the shingles vaccine to help prevent this painful condition. In addition, starting antiviral medications soon after symptoms appear may help shorten the duration of shingles.
If you or a loved one develops shingles, it’s important to stay away from people who are not immune to chickenpox until the blisters have crusted over. This may include infants who haven’t been vaccinated yet, and others who have never contracted the chickenpox or been vaccinated. Contact with the shingles rash can spread chickenpox to susceptible people.
The bottom line: If you’re over 60, talk with your physician about the shingles vaccine, and know the symptoms of shingles so you can get treatment — and relief — as soon as possible.
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