Shingles is a viral infection that typically causes a painful, blistering skin rash. Nearly 1 out of 3 people in the U.S. will develop shingles in their lifetime. Also known as herpes zoster, shingles usually affects older adults or people with weakened immune systems. The rash, which develops into fluid-filled blisters, typically appears on one side of the face or body and lasts two to four weeks.
People often have pain, itching, or tingling in the area where it will develop, anywhere from one to five days before the rash appears. While the rash most commonly appears on the one side of the face or body, shingles on the face can affect the eye and cause vision loss. In rare cases, the rash may be more widespread on the body and look similar to a chickenpox rash in immunocompromised people.
Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, also known as the varicella zoster virus (VZV). After a person has chickenpox, the virus stays in their body and becomes inactive. (Studies show that more than 99% of Americans 40 years and older have had chickenpox, even if they don’t remember having the disease.) Years later, the virus can reactivate, causing shingles. Scientists are unclear on what causes the virus to reactivate, but there could be several factors.
As a person gets older, their immune system begins to weaken and is less likely to prevent the virus from reactivating. That’s why the risk of shingles increases with age—people with weakened immune systems are more likely to get shingles. Children can get shingles, but it is not common.
While shingles isn’t contagious, direct contact with the fluid from a rash blister of someone who has the disease can spread VZV to those who have never had chickenpox or never received the chickenpox vaccine. If they get infected, they will develop chickenpox, not shingles. They could then develop shingles later in life.
Almost 1 out of 3 people in the United States will develop shingles in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And once someone has had shingles, it is possible for them to get it again.
You may be able to help protect yourself from getting shingles. Anyone 50 years of age or older should talk to their doctor or pharmacist about prevention strategies that are right for them. This is key because avoiding shingles can also reduce the chances of developing nerve pain called postherpetic neuralgia (or PHN), which can be a consequence of shingles. (About 10 to 18% of people who get shingles will experience PHN.)
WHEN TO SEE A DOCTOR
Contact your doctor promptly if you suspect shingles, but especially in the following situations:
- The pain and rash occur near an eye. If left untreated, this infection can lead to permanent eye damage.
- You’re 50 or older, because age significantly increases your risk of complications.
- You or someone in your family has a weakened immune system (due to cancer, medications or chronic illness).
- The rash is widespread and painful.