Important Information About Recurring Shingles

Recurring shingles are caused by the same virus that is responsible for chickenpox infections, the varicella zoster virus.  Shingles is also known as herpes zoster.  People who have had chickenpox, even many years ago, can then get shingles.  It most often occurs after the age of 50 or in people whose immune systems are compromised due to cancer or other illnesses.  Shingles can also occur in people that have received the varicella, or chickenpox, vaccine.

When someone is infected with chickenpox, the virus spreads throughout the body’s nervous system and ganglia.  The virus can persist for many years and approximately ten to twenty percent of the people who had chickenpox as a child will later suffer from recurring shingles.  It’s not fully known or understood how the virus is reactivated, but age and suppressed immune systems are factors.  If the chickenpox infection happens at an early age, younger than 18 months, that also tends to be a risk factor for developing shingles.

The most prominent symptom is a very painful rash and headaches.  The rash will often have lesions or blisters full of fluid.  The rash is usually on one side of the body or face.  It commonly occurs around the waist area.  The pain and rash often last two to four weeks during each outbreak.  The itching and burning pain from the rash can be very painful and there is no effective treatment of these symptoms.  Sometimes fever, headaches, and chills can also occur with the rash.  Unfortunately the pain can sometimes become permanent and this happens in about 20 percent of people who get shingles.

Recurring shingles is not a contagious virus like the chickenpox virus is.  You can’t get shingles by simply being around someone with shingles.  Chickenpox, however, can be contracted by being exposed to someone with shingles.  For this to happen, a person that has never had chickenpox before would have to be exposed to the actual rash blisters.  This is rare and is more likely to happen if you already have a compromised immune system.  It can’t be spread through a cough or sneeze.

Recurring shingles can result in some long-term complications or short-term serious complications.  Pneumonia can be caused by shingles.  Viral pneumonia is usually not as serious as bacterial pneumonia, but it is more difficult to treat since antibiotics don’t work on viruses.  Any type of pneumonia in older people can be fatal.  Infections can also spread to other organs or the bloodstream, especially in people with compromised immune systems.

Because recurring shingles is a result of the virus flaring in the nerves, it can cause damage to other areas of the central nervous system.  A person with shingles can become paralyzed due to damage to the cranial nerves or the paralysis can be only on one side of the body.  Blindness is another neural complication of recurring shingles.  Additionally, the brain can become swollen and inflamed causing encephalitis, which can result in anything from fatigue to coma.

There is now a vaccine that can reduce the risk that someone will get shingles after they have been infected with chickenpox.  The vaccine, Zostavax, is a live virus vaccine which raises a person’s immunity to the varicella zoster virus.  This immunity protects the person receiving the vaccine from zoster and its complications.  Testing shows that the risk of getting shingles is cut in half if this vaccine is received.  Even if a vaccinated person does develop shingles, it will most likely be less severe and not last as long.  The vaccine is given in a single injection in the upper arm.  Medical experts recommend that adults aged 60 and older get this vaccine. 


 

 


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