Shingles, aka zoster or herpes zoster, is a painful rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus remains latent in the body. For reasons not fully known, the virus may reactivate years after recovery.
Anyone who’s recovered from chickenpox may develop shingles, and the risk increases as a person ages. About half the cases occur among adults 60 years of age or older.
Acyclovir, valacyclovir and famciclovir are three of the several antiviral medicines available to help shorten the length and severity of the disease.
But to be effective, they must be started as soon as possible after the rash appears. People who think they might have shingles must call their doctor to discuss treatment options.
Analgesics might help relieve the pain shingles causes.
Shingles can’t be passed person to person, but the virus can be spread from a person with active shingles to a person who’s never had chickenpox. In such a case, the person would develop chickenpox, but not shingles.
A person with shingles can spread the virus through direct contact with fluid from the rash blisters, not through sneezing, coughing or casual contact. A person isn’t infectious before blisters appear or once the rash has developed crusts.
The only way to reduce the risk of developing shingles and its accompanying long-term pain (those commercials aren’t kidding) is to get vaccinated. The CDC recommends the vaccine for persons 60 and older.
However, in 2011 the FDA expanded its approval to people from 50-59 on the evidence of research showing that the shot cuts the risk of shingles by nearly 70% in that age group.
Recent studies show the vaccine is more effective in people in their 60s than in those over 70 because older people have a weaker immune response to it.
The vaccine is a live vaccine, usually given in the shoulder. Common side effects of the vaccine are redness, pain, tenderness and swelling at the injection site, and headaches.
For persons over 65, the cost of the shot falls under Medicare Part D, the federal drug program.
Sources: University of CA, Berkeley Wellness Letter, January, 2013 Mayo Clinic.com CDC.com