Office Visit: Shingles: Waking a Sleeping Giant

Office Visit: Shingles: Waking a Sleeping Giant

Lee esto en EspañolBy Joseph R. Cunningham, M.D.

If you’ve had chickenpox, you can get shingles. It’s called “the sleeping virus” because the same virus that causes chickenpox remains dormant in nerve tissue and can reactivate years later as shingles. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three Americans will develop shingles during their life, and while it’s most common in adults, even children can get it.

Shingles is a viral infection that causes nerve pain, burning, tingling, itching, and a painful rash on one side of the face or body. The shingles rash may blister before scabbing over and can take weeks to heal. Shingles on the face can be particularly severe and may even cause vision loss. A small percentage of patients can experience long-term nerve pain, in the area of their rash, for years after they have recovered.

Antiviral medicines can be used to treat shingles, but they are most effective when taken as soon as possible, so it’s important to reach out to your doctor right away if you suspect you may have shingles. Pain medicine and home remedies like oatmeal baths and calamine lotion may help relieve some of the symptoms associated with shingles.

The risk of getting shingles goes up with age, and those with weakened immune systems are also at a higher risk. If you haven’t had chickenpox, you’re not out of the woods, especially if you haven’t received the chickenpox vaccine. While you cannot get shingles from someone who has shingles, you can get chickenpox, which can later develop into shingles. Transmission generally occurs through direct contact with fluid from the shingles rash, so patients should cover their rash to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Even if you’ve had shingles before, you can develop it again. There is a two-dose shingles vaccine available for adults to help reduce your risk of developing shingles. While the vaccine doesn’t eliminate the risk of shingles, it can help reduce severity and complications, like long-term nerve pain.

Shingles isn’t pleasant. I encourage you to talk with your doctor about your risk level and questions you have about the shingles vaccine.

Dr. Joseph R. CunninghamJoseph R. Cunningham, M.D. is the president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma, a Division of Health Care Service Corporation, a Mutual Legal Reserve Company.

(For more Office Visit columns by Dr. Cunningham, visit The Journal Record.) leaving site icon