Have you had chickenpox? If you have, then there’s a chance you could develop shingles, a very painful, blistering skin rash that is caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. With one million cases diagnosed each year in the United States and one in three people estimated to get shingles in their lifetime, the ailment is not uncommon. Rob Danoff, DO, an osteopathic family physician from Philadelphia, tells us who is most vulnerable to shingles and provides tips to ensure proper diagnosis and treatment.
Who is at risk?
“Shingles is a risk for anyone who’s ever had chickenpox, particularly older adults and people who have a weakened immune system,” explains Dr. Danoff. “After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus can lie dormant for years, then reactivate and produce shingles." So does that mean people who have never had chickenpox or who got the chickenpox vaccine are in the clear? Not necessarily, explains Dr. Danoff. “While people who have never had chickenpox cannot develop shingles, they can develop chickenpox by coming in contact with shingles.” Dr. Danoff warns those who have not had chickenpox, or who have never had the chickenpox vaccine, to avoid touching the rash or blisters on a person with shingles. He also recommends that adults 50 years or older speak with their physician about Zostavax, an immunization designed to reduce the risk of getting shingles. “This vaccine decreases the risk for shingles in older adults by boosting the immune response against the shingles virus.”
What are the common symptoms?
Shingles symptoms might be difficult to detect in the early stages. However, according to Dr. Danoff, there are some tell-tale signs, including:
Pain, burning, numbness or tingling
A red rash or stripe of blisters that wraps around either the left or right side of your torso, or occurs around one eye, or on one side of the neck or face
Fluid-filled blisters that break open and crust over within two to three weeks
Fever and chills
“Shingles symptoms vary in severity and some people can experience shingles pain without ever developing a rash. That is why it is important to consult a physician if you notice any changes in your body,” explains Dr. Danoff.
When should you consult a physician?
If you notice a persistent pain or a widespread itchy rash on your body, Dr. Danoff recommends scheduling an immediate appointment with your primary health care provider. “For people over 60, it is especially important to get medical care at the first signs of shingles, as sometimes pain in the affected area can linger months to years following an outbreak if the nerves have been damaged,” explains Dr. Danoff. Immediate care is also crucial in preventing possible complications, such as:
Vision loss - a possible result of eye infections caused by shingles in or around an eye
Neurological problems - e.g. inflammation of the brain, facial paralysis, or hearing/ balance problems
Post-herpetic neuralgia – a painful condition that may result from shingles and last for many weeks or months, even after the rash has disappeared
Skin infections - occur when shingles blisters aren't properly treated
What is the treatment for shingles?
“While there is no cure for shingles, prompt treatment with prescription antiviral drugs and pain medicine can speed healing and reduce the risk of complications,” explains Dr. Danoff. He adds that good home care also can also help you feel better faster. “Keep sores clean, take your medicines as directed, and be upfront with your doctor about chronic pain or lingering symptoms.”
As you age, your immune system may not always provide as strong a defense against diseases such as shingles. “This makes it imperative for older adults to continue to schedule regular visits with a health care provider, especially at the first sign of a shingles symptom,” advises Dr. Danoff. “An open dialogue with your physician is the first step in closing the shingles chapter of your life.”
If you don't currently have a physician, consider Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine,
or DOs. They look beyond symptoms to understand how lifestyle and
environmental factors affect their patients' wellbeing. They listen and
partner with them to help them get healthy and stay well.