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Shingles: A Common, Painful, and Contagious Rash

close-up of shingles with the word Ouch superimposed.

You might have heard about shingles pain from family or friends. About one out of three Americans develop shingles during their lifetime.

Shingles causes a painful rash that most often appears as a stripe of blisters around either the left or the right side of the torso. Sometimes the rash occurs on one side of the neck or face. Besides pain, those affected might also experience burning, itching, tingling sensations, fever, headaches, chills, and fatigue.

Even though blisters are usually cleared within two to four weeks, shingles can cause long-term nerve pain. Other complications from shingles include vision loss, neurological problems, and skin infections. The risk of getting shingles and its serious complications increases with age. 

Shingles is caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox virus in the body. Studies show more than 99 percent of Americans born before 1980 have had chickenpox, and anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk for shingles.

Direct contact with the fluids from a shingles rash can spread the virus to anyone who isn’t immune to chickenpox. The infected person will develop chickenpox, which can reactivate years later and cause shingles. People with shingles should avoid physical contact with anyone who has never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine until their blisters scab over. 

You should contact your doctor as soon as possible if you think you have shingles. Antiviral medications are commonly prescribed for shingles to reduce the severity and duration of the illness. These medications should be started as soon as possible—within 72 hours from when the rash first appears for the maximum benefit. Your doctor may also recommend medications to relieve the pain, itching, and fever based on your condition. 

Protecting yourself against shingles

The shingles vaccine (Shingrix) is the best way to protect yourself against shingles. It is more than 90 percent effective at preventing shingles, and those who do still develop shingles will in most cases have a less severe case of it.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that adults aged 50 years or older get two doses of the Shingrix vaccine, separated by two to six months. This recommendation also applies to individuals who have had shingles, have received Zostavax (the original/older shingles vaccine), and those who are unsure or don’t think that they have had chickenpox. Shingrix helps prevent repeat shingles episodes in individuals who had shingles. 

Shingrix is proven to be safe, and side effects are mostly temporary and mild. The common side effects of Shingrix include soreness, redness, swelling at the injection area, tiredness, muscle pain, and headache. Overall, the possible side effects people might experience from Shingrix are far less severe than having shingles and the long-term complications from illness. 

You can get Shingrix at your local pharmacy and doctor’s office to protect you and your loved ones. For more information about shingles, visit www.cdc.gov/shingles.


Contributor Wenye Dang, PharmD, is a pharmacy resident at Kelley-Ross Pharmacy Group.

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