Shingles is very common. Fifty percent of all Americans will have had shingles by the time they are 80. While shingles occurs in people of all ages, it is most common in 60- to 80-year-olds.
What Causes Shingles?
Shingles is a painful skin disease caused by a reactivation of the chickenpox virus. It is distinctive because it affects only one side of the body. The early signs of shingles usually develop in three stages: severe pain or tingling, possibly itchy rash, and blisters that look like chickenpox.
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The name shingles comes from the Latin word cingulum, which means "belt" or "girdle." The scientific name for the virus that causes shingles is varicella-zoster, combining the Latin word for "little pox" with the Greek word for "girdle." Another name for shingles is herpes zoster.
The virus that causes shingles is a herpes virus. Once you are infected with this kind of virus, it remains in your body for life. It stays inactive until a period when your immunity is down.
Is Shingles Contagious?
If you have had chickenpox, shingles is not contagious. Nothing will happen to you if you are exposed to someone who has shingles. If you have never had chickenpox, however, avoid contact with anyone who has shingles; the fluid from their open blisters is infectious. You will not get shingles, but you could get chickenpox if exposed.
If you have not had chickenpox and you come into contact with someone who has shingles, ask your healthcare provider whether you should get a chickenpox vaccination.
Unlike chickenpox, with shingles, the virus is NOT transmitted by someone breathing or coughing on you. You have to come in contact with the blister fluid itself. Once the blisters scab over, the contagious period is ended.
Possible Effects of Shingles
The pain of shingles can be debilitating. If it is severe and persists for months or years, it is called postherpetic neuralgia. And unfortunately, persistent pain is a common symptom in people over 60.
Outbreaks that start on the face or eyes can cause vision or hearing problems. Even permanent blindness can result if the cornea of the eye is affected.
Bacterial infection of the open sores can lead to scarring. In a very small number of cases, bacteria can cause more serious conditions, including toxic shock syndrome and necrotizing fasciitis, a severe infection that destroys the soft tissue under the skin.
The burning waves of pain, loss of sleep, and interference with even basic life activities can cause serious depression.
In patients with immune deficiency, the rash can be much more extensive than usual and the illness can be complicated by pneumonia. These cases are more serious, but they are rarely fatal.
Shingles is Not Permanent
If you are basically healthy, shingles usually goes away without complications. You are not likely to ever get it again!
More importantly, the shingles vaccine may one day make shingles a rare disease.