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5 Reasons to Talk to Your Doctor About Shingles

Essential questions about the painful, blistering rash known as shingles.

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By Jameson Kowalczyk

If you’ve ever had chickenpox, you already have the virus that can cause a shingles infection. The two conditions are both caused by the varicella-zoster virus (also referred to as VZV). After you’ve recovered from chickenpox, VZV remains in your body, dormant in the tissues of your nervous system. Years later, the virus can reactivate, causing shingles.

Shingles is a painful, blistering rash. It typically appears on one side of the body, following the path of a nerve fiber, and is often preceded by itching, tingling or pain in the days before the rash appears. For the first seven to ten days, the rash consists of fluid-filled blisters. After seven to ten days, the blisters scab over, but it may take a few more weeks for the rash to clear up completely.

Keep reading for five reasons you should speak to your healthcare provider about shingles.

You (probably) already have VZV

2 / 6 You (probably) already have VZV

According to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are approximately one million cases of shingles in the United States each year, and one in three Americans will experience at least one bout of shingles at some point during their lifetime.

VZV, the virus that causes both chickenpox and shingles, is even more common. Published data estimates approximately 99.5 percent of people born in the United States who are 40 years and older have had chickenpox. This means that approximately 99.5 percent of people 40 years or older are carrying the virus that has the potential to cause a shingles infection.

Shingles can cause complications

3 / 6 Shingles can cause complications

The most common complication of shingles infection is postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN for short. PHN is nerve pain that persists after the rash from shingles infection has cleared up. This nerve pain occurs in the same location on the body that the shingles rash occurred. The pain can range from sharp and sudden, to constant burning and aching, to itching, numbness and extreme sensitivity to touch.

While a typical shingles rash clears up within two to four weeks, PHN usually lasts between one and three months. However, for 10 to 20 percent of people who experience PHN, the pain lasts a year or longer. In rare cases, the pain can last a decade.

Your risk increases with age

4 / 6 Your risk increases with age

Children, teenagers and adults of all ages all get shingles—but the risk significantly increases after the age of 50. According to published reports, people over the age of 50 account for nearly 70 percent of shingles infections and shingles-related complications like PHN.

Why does the risk of having shingles increase with age? Your immunity to VZV, which began when you first got chickenpox, becomes less effective as you get older. This is also why shingles and PHN tend to be more severe the older you are.

Having a compromised immune system at any age increases your risk of shingles and PHN. A weakened immune system can be the result of medical conditions like cancer and HIV. Certain medications, such as steroids and TNF (tumor necrosis factor) inhibitors—medications that are used treat autoimmune conditions such as psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis—also suppress the immune system and put you at risk for shingles.

You can get shingles again

5 / 6 You can get shingles again

Most people have shingles only one time. However, having shingles once does not guarantee you won’t have it again. Though there is not much information of the number of patients or percentage of patients who have had more than one episode of shingles, there are plenty of reported cases of people who have had shingles a second time. There are also reported cases of people who have had shingles a third time. Because of the risk of recurrence, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a shingles vaccine for anyone who has had shingles before, as it can reduce the risk of having another episode of shingles. 

You can prevent shingles

6 / 6 You can prevent shingles

The only way to prevent shingles is by getting a shingles vaccine. The CDC recommends the shingles vaccine for adults who are 50 years or older. As mentioned on the previous slide, this includes people who have previously had shingles. This also includes people who received a previous version of the shingles vaccine, since there is a newer vaccine that is more effective at preventing shingles.

Some of the things you should discuss with your healthcare provider that could affect your decision to get the shingles vaccine include your medical history, any known allergies and any medications you are taking. If you have recently been sick (with the flu, for example) you may need to delay getting the shingles vaccine. Women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or planning to become pregnant will also need to delay getting the shingles vaccine.

You can get the shingles vaccine at your healthcare provider’s office or at your local pharmacy. Remember to contact your insurance provider about coverage for the shingles vaccination before getting vaccinated.

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