Expert Health Articles

Shingles

Kelly LambertKelly Lambert, RN

BVHS Medical Home Care Navigator

Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful skin rash, often with blisters. A shingles rash can appear anywhere on the body, but usually appears on the side of the face or torso. The symptoms generally last for two to four weeks. The main symptom of shingles is pain, which can be quite severe. For about one in five people, severe pain can continue even after the rash clears up. Other symptoms include fever, headache, chills and upset stomach.  

Shingles is caused by the Varicella-Zoster virus - which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. If you have developed chickenpox or have been given the chickenpox vaccine in the past, you are at risk for developing shingles. A person with shingles can pass the virus to anyone who does not have immunity to chickenpox. Shingles is less contagious than chickenpox and the risk of spreading shingles is low when the rash is covered. Shingles are considered active and contagious when in the blister stage. You will not be contagious until the blisters appear and will remain contagious until the blisters crust over.

If you have shingles, keep the rash covered, avoid touching or scratching the rash, and wash your hands often to prevent the spread of the Varicella-Zoster virus. Until your rash has developed crusts, avoid contact with pregnant women who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine; premature or low birth weight infants; and people with weakened immune systems, such as people receiving immunosuppressive medications or undergoing chemotherapy, organ transplant recipients, and people with HIV infection.

There is no cure for shingles but several antiviral medicines are available for treatment including Acyclovir, Valacyclovir and Famciclovir. These medications will help shorten the length and severity of the illness. Analgesics (pain medicine) may help relieve the pain caused by shingles. Wet compresses, calamine lotion and colloidal oatmeal baths may help relieve some of the itching. If a rash appears and you are concerned it may be shingles, please contact your health care provider to discuss treatment options.

The only way to reduce your risk of developing shingles is to get vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that adults 60 years of age and older receive a single dose shingles vaccine in their lifetime unless contraindicated. There are some people who should not receive the vaccine, including anyone who has ever had a severe allergic reaction to gelatin, neomycin or any component of the shingles vaccine or has a weakened immune system because of HIV/AIDS, cancer treatment or medications that affect the immune system. If you have a history of cancer that affects bone marrow or the lymphatic system (like leukemia or lymphoma); have active, untreated tuberculosis; if you are pregnant or might be pregnant; or if you have a fever greater than 101.3 on the day you were to receive your vaccination, you will be asked to receive the vaccine at another time.

For shingles vaccination coverage, it is important to check with your insurance carrier as it varies from plan to plan. Depending on your age, you may not need a prescription to obtain the vaccination. Shingles vaccinations can be obtained at your local pharmacy or may be available at your primary care provider office. The cash price for the vaccination, if not covered, ranges from $210-$280.

Talk to your primary care provider for any questions you may have on the shingles vaccine.