Chickenpox and shingles are caused by the same virus, known as varicella-zoster. After having chickenpox as a child, the virus lies dormant in your body.
“Years later, the virus can wake up in the form of shingles,” said Carilyn L. Van Kalsbeek, MD, Family Physician at Avera Medical Group McGreevy 69th & Western. “It’s most common in people age 50 and older, and can show up in people with a lowered immunity.” Even though about half of cases occur among men and women age 60 and older, anyone who has recovered from chickenpox can develop shingles — even children.
Unlike chickenpox, shingles doesn’t appear as itchy red spots from head to toe. Rather, it manifests as a painful, band-shaped rash that’s often on either the left or right side of the body, back or chest. Sometimes, the shingles rash occurs around one side of the eye or face.
Shingles may start with a warning, in which an area of your skin burns, itches, tingles or feels very sensitive before the rash actually develops.
Blisters can rupture, forming open sores that could potentially become infected. Within 10 to 14 days, the rash scabs over and the person is no longer contagious.
“Is shingles contagious? Yes and no,” explained Van Kalsbeek. “It is NOT possible to ‘catch’ shingles from someone who has the rash. But it is possible to ‘catch’ the virus and then get sick with chickenpox.”
If they have never had it, chickenpox can be dangerous in infants and older adults, or any individual who has a weakened immune system.
Other common symptoms of shingles include fever, chills, headache, upset stomach and fatigue. Five to 20 percent of people develop a prolonged sense of pain — about 90 days — after the illness. Older sufferers are more likely to experience this complication.
“It’s ideal to see a physician within three days of the start of your symptoms,” Van Kalsbeek said. “Your physician may prescribe certain antiviral medications to promote recovery and minimize complications including excessive pain.”
Like chicken pox, the painful rash can be eased by cool baths, oatmeal baths, calamine lotion, or cool, wet compresses on blisters. Also, it helps to decrease the amount of stress in your life.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of three people will develop shingles.
Fortunately, shingles can be prevented.
“By getting the vaccine, you can reduce your chance of coming down with shingles, or make the symptoms milder if you are affected,” Van Kalsbeek said. Even people who have had shingles can receive the vaccine to help prevent future occurrences.
Receiving the vaccine reduces your chance of getting shingles by about half, and can reduce the severity of prolonged pain by 67 percent.
The vaccine is recommended for all people over age 60, but can be administered to people as young as 50. Only one dose is recommended; however, protection is the greatest within five years of getting the vaccine.
In general, most insurances cover the vaccine if you’re over age 60. Check with your insurance carrier as well as your physician if you are currently between ages 50 and 60, and want to be vaccinated against shingles.