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February 2008
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Soothing the Sting of Shingles
When a Childhood Virus Comes Back to Bite You

Soothing the Sting of Shingles

It’s an unpleasant part of childhood you can never really leave behind. Even when chickenpox is gone, the virus that causes it stays with you for life, hidden and inactive in your nerve cells. As you get older, the virus may make a second, unwelcome appearance and cause a painful disease called shingles. The second time around can be far more complicated and miserable than the first.

Once you’ve had chickenpox, caused by the varicella-zoster virus, you’re unlikely to get it again, thanks to your immune system. But as you get older, the virus may re-emerge and cause shingles, also known as herpes zoster. Shingles can strike at any age, but it usually affects adults after age 50. Each year more than 1 million Americans get shingles or its complications.

The most obvious symptom of shingles is a painful, itchy red rash with fluid-filled blisters, which generally appear on just 1 side of the body or face. The rash looks similar to chickenpox and can last from 3 to 5 weeks. After the rash fades, the pain sometimes persists for months or years. This lingering nerve pain, called post-herpetic neuralgia, affects nearly 1 out of every 3 older people with shingles. The pain can be so severe that even the gentlest touch or breeze can feel excruciating.

It’s impossible to “catch” shingles from someone else. But a person with an active shingles rash can pass the varicella-zoster virus to someone who’s never had chickenpox or a chickenpox vaccine. If that happens, the other person would get chickenpox, not shingles.

Fortunately, a new vaccine is now available to prevent shingles. A large clinical study showed that the Zostavax vaccine could cut the risk of getting shingles in half. NIH researchers helped with the clinical testing, which involved more than 38,000 older adults. When vaccinated people did get shingles, they generally had less pain and discomfort, and the risk of post-herpetic neuralgia was cut by two-thirds.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that all adults get the vaccine at age 60 or older, but only if they have a healthy immune system. Unfortunately, the vaccine is expensive, and the costs are not always covered by health insurance.  If you’re considering it, be sure to discuss the pros and cons of the vaccine with your doctor and check with your insurance provider about coverage.

Definitions iconDefinition

Immune System
The system that protects your body from invading viruses, bacteria and other microscopic threats.

Links iconWeb Sites

Shingles Overview       

Shingles Information Page

Shingles AgePage

Wise Choices iconWise Choices
Feeling Better with Shingles

See your doctor at the first sign of shingles. It often begins as burning or shooting pain and tingling or itching on 1 side of the body, followed by a blistering rash. Early treatment can help shorten the length of infection and reduce the risk of other problems. Your doctor may prescribe:

  • Antiviral drugs to help kill the varicella-zoster virus.
  • Steroids to lessen pain and shorten the time you’re sick.
  • Antidepressants, anticonvulsants or analgesics to reduce pain.

Things you can do:

  • Get enough rest and eat well-balanced meals.
  • Try to relax.  Stress can make the pain worse.
  • Dip a washcloth in cool water and apply it to your blisters to ease the pain.
  • Do things that take your mind off your pain.  Watch TV, read books, talk with friends or work on a hobby.
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