Shingles is a viral infection caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox (varicella zoster virus). Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles, but it is most common over age 50. A person can get shingles more than once.
Shingles causes a painful rash with localized blisters. While shingles is less contagious than chickenpox, it is possible to pass the varicella zoster virus to another person (who will develop chickenpox if they have not had this illness) if they are in contact with fluid from the blisters, which is why people with shingles should cover their rash until the blisters crust over. People with active shingles should avoid:
- pregnant people who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine
- premature or low birth weight babies
- people with weakened immune systems
Some people believe that being around a child with chickenpox can prevent shingles. It’s important to know that exposure to the chickenpox virus can cause chickenpox and put you at risk of getting shingles. The best way to prevent shingles is to 1) ensure your children are vaccinated against chickenpox and 2) make sure you get the shingles vaccination as an adult.
For some people, the pain of shingles can last for months or even years after the rash is gone (post-herpetic neuralgia). If a person has the blisters in or near the eye it can cause vision loss. Rarely and depending on which nerves are affected, a person can suffer facial paralysis, hearing or balance problems, and brain inflammation (encephalitis). Blisters that are not properly treated can lead to skin infections.
The shingles vaccine reduces the risk of shingles and long-lasting pain after shingles (post-herpetic neuralgia) by more than 90%. Even if someone with the shingles vaccine does get shingles, they are likely to have a mild case.
The vaccine is safe. The most common side effects are redness, swelling, and muscle pain, where the vaccine was given. People sometimes also experience tiredness, headache, chills/fever, or stomach pain/nausea. Most side effects are mild and go away on their own.
Healthy adults over 50 should get two doses 2-6 months apart.
Talk to your healthcare provider about what vaccines your family needs.
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