Shingles can be painful; vaccine can help prevent occurrences

Published Aug 27, 2017 at 9:00am

Shingles is the everyday name for Varicella Zoster.

This is an infection caused by the chickenpox virus. That virus stays dormant in most of us, even though we recovered from the infection as a child. Then it may arise again, later in life, and cause an uncomfortable rash that may linger for weeks or months.

Chickenpox is a childhood disease that most children had in the past. There were blister-like lesions all over the body.

There were possible complications to chickenpox and an occasional death. For many years we have had a vaccine that protects against chickenpox (also called varicella).

Very few cases are seen now. Two shots of chickenpox vaccine are generally given before a child starts to school.

Some viruses become dormant in our bodies, even for the rest of our lives. The chickenpox virus is one of those. It causes no problems, unless we develop a condition called varicella zoster (or shingles). This can occur at any age. It causes only minor problems in older children or young adults. In senior citizens, it can be a very serious condition.

Shingles usually begins as a painful rash, present somewhere on the body, but only on the right or left side of the body. Most often the rash is on the torso. If it is on the face, an eye may be affected. It tends to be in a small patch or band.

The blisters are obvious. (The only other common cause of a rash with blisters is poison ivy.) Most people find this uncomfortable and see the doctor. There are anti-viral medications that are prescribed, which usually shorten the course and reduce the discomfort. In the elderly, the rash of shingles may linger for weeks or months. In some cases, the pain lingers, without the rash. Shingles is not considered contagious, but the rash should be covered when the patient is around other people. 

Shingles can cause involvement of the eye, if the rash is in that area. That can be severe and result in blindness. It can also effect the brain and cause serious problems, although this is rare. If the nervous system is involved there may be encephalitis or nerve damage such as Bell’s Palsy, hearing loss, or balance problems.

The shingles vaccine for adults was developed several years ago and is now available for persons who are age 60 or older. It does not need to be repeated.

It may not be free, depending on your insurance, but it is a good investment if you must pay for it. People who are immunosuppressed should not get the vaccine. Check with your doctor about that. You should also know that the vaccine is not 100 percent effective. 

We all want to avoid shingles, if possible. The vaccine can be obtained at your doctor’s office or at most pharmacies. If you have turned age 60 and have not gotten the shingle shot, it is time to make arrangements for it.