Recently, shingles has made headlines because of a new vaccine that was approved in 2017: the recombinant zoster vaccine, or Shingrix.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), two doses of the new vaccine are more than 90 percent effective at preventing shingles and its side effects.
Shingles is a painful, often debilitating rash that affects roughly 1 million people each year. Luckily, getting vaccinated can help you prevent it and stop shingles from spreading.
To help explain more about how shingles spreads and what it is, we’ve gathered key information from MedlinePlus and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
What is shingles?
Shingles is a rash or blisters on the skin that initially can cause burning, itching, and even numbness. Shingles often happens on one side of the body. Some people may also have a fever, headache, chills, and an upset stomach.
Shingles comes from the same virus—herpes varicella zoster—that causes chickenpox.
Chickenpox usually happens in kids under 15 and creates an itchy, uncomfortable rash that turns into blisters. There is a vaccine for chickenpox that can prevent or lessen symptoms for most people.
After chickenpox goes away, the virus remains in a dormant state in our nerve cells, ready to strike again in later life. This second eruption of the chickenpox virus is called shingles.
Who gets shingles?
Shingles occurs when something triggers the virus to become active again. You can’t get shingles unless you’ve been exposed to chickenpox.
Roughly 25 percent of all adults will get shingles during their lifetime, usually after age 50. You’re more likely to get it as you get older. In fact, shingles is 10 times more likely to occur in adults over 60 than in children under 10.
Most adults who have the dormant virus in their body never get shingles.
What are the complications?
Postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) is the most common complication of shingles. Symptoms include severe pain in the areas where you had the shingles rash. Some patients’ pain is so severe, it hurts to put on clothing. It usually gets better in a few weeks.
Shingles can sometimes cause vision loss or hearing problems if it happens near your eyes or ears. Very rarely, shingles can also lead to pneumonia, brain inflammation, or death.
How is shingles treated?
You can shorten and improve a shingles attack by quick treatment with antiviral drugs. Those include acyclovir, valcyclovir, or famcyclovir.
Pain medicine can relieve some of the pain caused by shingles. Wet compresses, calamine lotion, and oatmeal baths may help relieve some of the itching.
For most healthy people who receive treatment quickly, the pain should subside within three to five weeks and the blisters often leave no scars.
If you think you may have shingles, call your health care provider as soon as possible to discuss treatment options.
Can shingles be prevented?
The only way to reduce the risk of developing shingles or PHN is to get vaccinated.
The new recombinant zoster vaccine, Shingrix, and the zoster vaccine live, Zostavax, are both approved by the Food and Drug Administration to prevent shingles for most adults age 50 and older.
The CDC recommends that healthy adults 50 years and older get two doses of the Shingrix vaccine to protect against shingles and its potential complications. The vaccine is available in pharmacies and doctors’ offices.