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Understand the Shingles Virus and Your Risk


WRITTEN BY: Aging Institute
Saturday, June 27th, 2015

It starts with flu-like symptoms, maybe a fever or headache. A few days later, you may feel itchy, tingly, or have pain in a certain spot. Then, the telltale rash appears.

This is the progression of shingles, a skin rash caused by the chickenpox virus.

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What Is Shingles?

Shingles usually appears in older people who have had chickenpox. It is caused by the varicella-zoster virus and may also be called herpes zoster.

The virus remains dormant in your body until something reawakens it. A weakened immune system, certain medications, stress, or injury are possible causes of shingles. People over age 50 are at higher risk.

Shingles is characterized by a painful rash, usually on one side of your midsection or on your face. The rash turns into blisters, which crust over. It can take two to four weeks to fully heal. Luckily, most people do not have a recurrence of the virus.

Is the Shingles Virus Contagious?

It’s possible that the varicella virus can be spread to people who haven’t had chickenpox or gotten the chickenpox vaccine. In general, however, you’re not likely to catch shingles from someone else.

If you know or think you have shingles, be careful around:

  • Pregnant women
  • Newborns
  • People who are sick
  • People with weakened immune systems.

These individuals are at higher risk of getting the virus, and it’s best to keep your distance until the blisters heal.

Cover any sores or unhealed blisters to help prevent spreading the virus.

How Is Shingles Treated?

Your doctor will likely be able to identify shingles by the rash. If unsure, your doctor may test cells from the rash to identify the virus.

Antiviral medications are used to lessen pain, speed up healing, and lower the chance of complications. Your doctor may also prescribe creams to help control pain. Cold compresses can also give some relief.

What About the Shingles Vaccine?

The shingles vaccine may be a preventive option. It is not used as treatment. The vaccine also doesn’t ensure that you won’t develop shingles, but it does help reduce your risk of complications.

If you have never had chickenpox, your doctor may recommend the varicella vaccine. Again, the vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t develop chickenpox, but it would come before shingles. The vaccine also helps your chances of having a shorter duration and less risk of complications.

Talk to your doctor right away if you have signs of shingles. The sooner you get treatment, the better your chances of healing faster.

Have you had your vaccination for the shingles virus? If you haven’t get in touch with the UPMC Department of Family Medicine to schedule your vaccination today.

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Aging Institute

The Aging Institute of UPMC Senior Services and the University of Pittsburgh is a catalyst for change, mobilizing the resources of UPMC and the University to the benefit of older adults, their caregivers, and the community at large. The Aging Institute strives to provide integrated, comprehensive and timely access to a full range of services for senior citizens and all members of the public. Read More