Three myths regarding Shingles: Only the elderly can get Shingles, Shingles cannot be prevented, and once the Shingles rash disappears there are no further complications.
What is Shingles?
Shingles is caused by the Herpes zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes Chickenpox. Anyone that has had Chickenpox can get Shingles as the virus lays dormant in the body and can reappear as Shingles. Shingles manifests as a skin rash that may resemble a shingle on a roof-hence the name. It may be very painful; and it usually starts on one side of the face or body. The rash usually scabs over in 7-10 days and clears up within 2-4 weeks, but can last weeks longer. According to the CDC, other symptoms besides a rash can include fever, headache, chills or upset stomach.
Shingles Complications can be Severe
Shingles can lead to serious complications of the eye-including loss of vision. Per the CDC, very rarely Shingles can lead to “pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation (encephalitis) or death.” More commonly there is a complication called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN manifests as severe pain in the area where the rash once was. It usually clears up in weeks to months but can last years.
Around 50% of Shingles cases occur in people 60 years of age and older. It would make sense then that health care providers would not be looking for Shingles in a younger person; nevertheless, they should recognize it when they see it. Not so in my case. As previously mentioned, Shingles complications can be severe; therefore, to be misdiagnosed and not treated could have turned out badly. I was 36 years old and in good health. I developed a small rash on my back that itched terribly. I went to an urgent care center where a physician diagnosed the rash as either “contact dermatitis or strep.” He gave me antibiotic cream to put on it. I went home and got out a microbiology text that I had and looked up contact dermatitis and strep rashes. Fortunately, there were pictures. It was quite clear to me that my rash did not look like either. Fortunately at the time, I was a clinical lab technologist at a VA hospital so I had easy access to a pathologist. The next day I showed my rash to one of the pathologists who immediately diagnosed it as Shingles. I was sent down to the clinic where a skin scraping was done which showed Shingles was indeed the diagnosis. However, the supervising physician in the clinic proceeded to scare me to death by saying I must have an immunodeficiency such as HIV to have shingles at my age. Not a great bedside manner to say the least. An HIV test was ordered and it was negative. I had no signs of immunodeficiency. I did have a lot of stress in my life at the time, however. The important thing was I was put on an anti-viral drug and my Shingles got better in a few weeks.
Is Shingles as contagious as Chickenpox?
Shingles is not as contagious as Chickenpox. The virus that causes Shingles can be spread only in the phase when the rash is blistered. The fluid in the blisters can spread the virus. However, only a person who has not had Chickenpox could get sick. If the virus was spread to a person who had not had Chickenpox, the person would get Chickenpox not Shingles. It is recommended that the rash be covered in the blister stage to prevent transmission of the virus to others.
There is a vaccine to prevent Shingles. It has been recommended since 2006 for people aged 60 and older to get the Shingles vaccine as it has been demonstrated to “significantly reduce disease in this age group.” The cost of the vaccine is higher than typical vaccines as it retails for approximately $200. Check with your physician or pharmacy for pricing and availability.
Source: Centers for Disease Control (CDC) at cdc.gov