Shingles: What you need to know

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If you have had chickenpox in the past, you are at higher risk of developing shingles, a painful rash most commonly affecting older adults and people with weakened immune systems. 

Shingles can develop when the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), the virus that causes chickenpox, is awakened in the body. Shingles can occur anywhere on the body, but most often appears on the torso including the waist, chest, abdomen, or back.   

“When someone has shingles, they can find it hard to function,” says Dr. Vladimir Stefan, a primary care physician with McLaren Port Huron. “It becomes painful to do anything.”

Symptoms can take two to four weeks to fully clear, but complications may last longer even after the rash is gone. For instance, patients who have had an outbreak on their face near their eyes may subsequently experience vision problems. Shingles near the ear can result in Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, which can cause facial paralysis and hearing loss in the affected ear. 

The shingles vaccine, Shingrix, which is recommended for people who have had the chickenpox and are 50 years of age or older, requires two shots that are administered two to six months apart. Studies have shown it to be 97 percent effective in preventing shingles in adults ages 50-69, and 91 percent effective in those who are 70 or older.

The vaccine also decreases the chances of a person getting postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), a prolonged pain that can affect one in five people who get shingles. The pain occurs in the same area where the rash appeared and is caused by nerve fibers beneath the skin surface sustaining damage during the shingles infection. It can be a debilitating condition that lasts weeks, months, or longer.

Dr. Stefan recommends that individuals who have been vaccinated with Zostavax, the previous shingles vaccine, should still consider getting the Shingrix vaccine.

Because of the pain, scarring and other possible complications, Dr. Stefan explains to his patients that getting vaccinated against shingles is important.

“It’s not a fun thing to have,” said Dr. Stefan. “If you can avoid it by getting the vaccine, it is something you should consider.”

If you are 50 years of age or older and have had the chickenpox, speak with your primary care provider about the shingles vaccine.