7 things to know about the shingles virus

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Intense pain, burning, tingling and a blistering rash – these are some of the common symptoms of shingles. 

If you’ve ever had chicken pox, the varicella-zoster virus that causes shingles is dormant in your nerve tissue.

So what causes shingles to spring to life wreaking havoc on your body and what can you do about it? Here are seven things you should know about the shingles virus.

1. Shingles is chicken pox coming back to get you

If you’ve had chicken pox, you can get shingles. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 1 out of every 3 people in the United States will develop shingles.
 
Shingles can be very painful and debilitating. The rash consists of little vesicles of clear fluid on a red base. They appear linear because they follow the distribution of a single nerve. Shingles never crosses the midline so if you have an outbreak, it’s either going to be just on the right side of the body or just on the left side of the body. It could be on your face, your arm, your back, your tummy, your leg but it’s only one place at a time.
 

2. A common cold could trigger shingles

Our immune system tends to wane as we get older, which is why shingles usually occurs in adults over 50. If you get sick with a cold or a sinus infection, your immune system is focused on fighting the cold, which can trigger shingles. Other risk factors include stress, sun exposure, medications to prevent organ rejection and cancer treatments. 
 

3. You can get shingles more than once

Having had shingles once doesn’t mean that you won’t get it again. Some people get shingles repetitively. There’s no way to know who that person is going to be. 
 

4. You can’t give someone shingles

A person with shingles can’t give it to someone else but they can give someone chicken pox if that person hasn’t had it or if they’ve not been immunized against it. 
Shingles is spread through direct contact with the open sores. If you keep the rash covered and prevent people from touching the area, it should be fine. Shingles is no longer contagious once it dries up and becomes scabs.
 

5. Vaccination can prevent shingles

The new CDC recommendation is that healthy people age 50 and older get the Shingrix vaccine. It’s a two shot series that is upwards of 98 percent effective. 
The previous shingles vaccine Zostavax was 65 to 70 percent effective. Anyone who has had Zostavax should be re-immunized with Shingrix. This also applies to people who have had shingles or are unsure if they’ve had chicken pox.
 

6. Treatment options vary

We treat shingles with antiviral medications to help reduce the outbreak. Sometimes steroids are helpful. We can also use an anti-seizure medication to help settle down the nerve and the pain coming from that nerve.
 

7. It’s rare but shingles can cause blindness

I don’t see it very often but if shingles is in the eye, it’s a threat to your vision. I immediately refer patients to an ophthalmologist for treatment. Another uncommon potential complication is disseminated zoster, which is an overwhelming viral infection throughout the body. Some people end up being treated in the intensive care unit. 


Randell Wexler is an associate professor of family medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.