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Shingles

  • A reactivation of chicken pox that causes a painful red blistering rash on the body
  • Symptoms include a painful rash that usually forms a single stripe on one side of the body
  • Shingles usually goes away without treatment, but a vaccine can prevent it
  • Involves internal medicine and infectious diseases

Overview

One day you might wake up with a painful blistering rash on one side of your body that looks like chicken pox. The odds are high that you have shingles, a skin condition caused by the herpes zoster virus. Shingles is a common condition—about one-third of Americans will have them at one point in their lives.

What causes shingles?

Shingles only affects people who have had chicken pox; it occurs because of a reactivation of the chickenpox virus, caused by the herpes zoster virus. After a person recovers from chickenpox, the virus stays dormant in the body. If the virus reactivates in the body years later, it can manifest as shingles.

In addition to increasing with age, incidence of shingles is more common in people with compromised immune systems from medical conditions or immunosuppressive drugs. However, shingles can also appear in children and healthy adults.

What does shingles look like?

The shingles rash is comprised of bright red blisters that scab over in 7 to 10 days and clear up within 2 to 4 weeks. The most distinctive feature of this rash is that it usually appears in a single stripe on only one side of the body. While shingles usually goes away without treatment, it can cause long-term problems in older patients. The most common of these is long-term pain called “post-herpetic neuralgia” in areas where the rash appeared; the pain remains even after the rash clears up. Other complications can include vision impairment, balance problems, or difficulty hearing. In rare cases, shingles can spread into the brain or spinal cord and cause serious complications such as meningitis or a stroke. 

Is shingles contagious?

Shingles is not contagious, but chickenpox, which is caused by the same virus, is. If you haven’t had chickenpox or been fully vaccinated against it, you could contract the virus from someone with shingles and end up with chickenpox. This, in turn, leaves you open to getting shingles down the road.

Can women get shingles while pregnant?

Yes. If you have had chickenpox, but don’t have the shingles vaccine, you could develop shingles during pregnancy. It could potentially cause problems for your baby, but most experts agree that the risk is lower than with chickenpox. 

How can you prevent shingles?

A vaccine can provide protection against shingles. This is recommended by the CDC for all people age 60 years or older, except those who have a compromised immune system. 

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that having had shingles provides adequate protection. “Patients who've had shingles believe that they're probably not going to get them again,” says infectious disease expert Raymond Johnson, MD, PhD. “But those patients actually should be vaccinated as recommended by the CDC. Although the data is very limited, it appears that the vaccine boost provides more powerful protection than getting shingles itself.”

How is Yale Medicine a leader in treating shingles?

Our doctors frequently treat complex cases of shingles and complications caused by it. Patients with compromised immune systems, either because of organ transplant procedures or genetic disorders, who develop shingles receive specialized care at Yale Medicine says Dr. Johnson.

Patients at Yale Medicine are seen by board certified infectious disease doctors who provide long-term care for patients with complex cases of these and other infectious diseases, and work with a highly skilled team of healthcare professionals, including nurses, dietitians, social workers, and other physicians.