Shingles — Chickenpox all grown up?

You had chickenpox as a child and heard that it can come back as shingles when you are an adult. Has this childhood disease returned in the form of the painful rash and blisters you now have?

Shingles is an infection of the nerve that triggers a painful rash or small blisters – usually on one side of the body. It is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Because the virus can lay dormant for years, anyone who has had chickenpox can develop shingles later in life.

Washington University physician, Jonathan Byrd, MD, talks about shingles and who should get the vaccine. “After someone recovers from chickenpox, the virus remains in the body – dormant in the central nervous system.  

Under the right conditions, the virus can wake up from hibernation and travel down nerve fibers. While we don’t know exactly what triggers the virus to reactivate, some possibilities include older age, certain cancers, cancer treatments, stress or trauma. It is much more common in people over 50 and also in people with weakened immune systems. Approximately 30 percent of persons in the United States will experience zoster virus (shingles) during their lifetimes and the incidence seems to be increasing.”

Common symptoms of shingles

  • Pain, tingling, numbness on a single side of the body
  • Rash that appears one to five days after the pain begins and quickly turns into blisters
  • Rash is only on the band of skin supplied by the affected nerve
  • Rash may involve the face, eyes, mouth and ears
  • Blisters typically scab over in 7 to 10 days
  • Other symptoms may include upset stomach, fever and/or chills, headache

Dr. Byrd says, “Because the symptoms of shingles may look like other medical conditions, you should always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis. This is especially true if the symptoms are near the eye as this can become a very serious condition that can cause permanent loss to vision if not addressed and monitored appropriately. There is no cure for shingles — it simply has to run its course (usually two to four weeks). Treatment focuses on pain relief – creams, lotions, cool compresses and steroids. Wearing loose-fitting clothing is also helpful.

If you’ve had shingles once, it is unlikely you will get it again but it can still happen. A person can pass shingles to other individuals but this usually occurs by direct contact and only when blisters are still present. Once these scab over the risk of transmission is very low.”

Shingles vaccine

According to Dr. Byrd, “This is an exciting time in shingles management as we now have a new tool in prevention of shingles and related complications. This is a novel non-live virus vaccination called Shingrix. Guidelines are currently evolving due to this. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) at the CDC now recommends this new vaccination for shingles for individuals 50 and older (even if you don’t recall having chickenpox as a child). Additionally, it is recommended for individuals who already received the live vaccination, Zostavax®. The shingles vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t get shingles, but the vaccine will likely reduce the severity of the disease and potential pain after the infection.

However, because people with certain medical conditions should not have the shingles vaccine (especially the live one), you should always discuss it first with your physician.”

For more information, or to make an appointment with Dr. Byrd or another physician at Washington University Clinical Associates – Grant Medical, please call 314-534-8600.

Grant Medical Clinic
114 North Taylor
St. Louis, MO 63108