What is Shingles?
Credit: Opensource

Shingles can occur out of the blue without any warning at any age. However, it typically affects people over 60 and its symptoms and severity can vary greatly.

Over a decade ago, I actually had a bout with shingles briefly, or at least that was what I was told. I am skeptical still because my symptoms were mild and there have been no other occurrences since.

My situation started with nausea and I felt like I had the flu. Then a rash broke out on the forehead and I didn’t know what was happening. In the span of 2 days, I went from feeling fine to being completely out of it. What made it even worse, I was on vacation with family in Florida.

I became so ill that they took me to an Emergency Care Clinic and as I began to describe how I was feeling, the doctor almost stopped me mid-description and said I had shingles. He prescribed the same medication for herpes and it cleared it right up.

As I would learn, shingles is a variation of the herpes virus, although it sounds a lot worse than it is. We all have herpes to some extent. Even the cold sores we get in our mouths are related to that virus. However, because of movies and comedians, every time someone hears that word, they immediately think of a sexually transmitted disease which is unfortunate given that it affects us all.

As I said, I’m skeptical it was actually shingles. I’ve had no further issues in almost 15 years, but the virus has a tendency to lie dormant for decades, so it could have been a mild breakout.

Most of my knowledge of shingles came from that brief experience and the research I did on it at the time. As you can imagine, it was sort of a shock because I didn’t know anything about it.

So where does shingles come from?

What is the Shingles Virus?

Progression of the Shingles Virus
Credit: birdy geimfyglið via Wikimedia Commons

A cluster of small bumps (1) turns into blisters (2) that resemble chickenpox lesions. The blisters fill with pus, break open (3), crust over (4), and finally disappear. This process takes four to five weeks. A painful condition called post-herpetic neuralgia can sometimes occur. This condition is thought to be caused by damage to the nerves (5), and can last from weeks to years after the rash disappears.

If you have ever had chicken pox, you have the shingles virus inside you right now. Shingles is caused by the same virus.

Shingles sometimes causes a painful blistering rash as well as nerve pain in various locations of your body. In fact, one of the typical locations where people tend to get the rash is around the eye and forehead, which is why I suspect the physician immediately diagnosed me with the virus. However, the rash can develop on any part of the body.

Initially the rash will begin as a tingling of the skin which may progress to minor redness or large rashes and bumps.

For reasons as of yet unknown, the dormant virus comes to life at certain times in people’s life.

As I was told at the time, the prevailing theory is that it emerges during times of heavy stress or when your immune system is weak, which typically occurs with older people.

How Do You Get Shingles?

If you had chicken pox when you were young, you build up antibodies and are immune to it from that point forward. However, just because you never get chicken pox again does not mean you are not carrying it inside your cells.

Everyone that has had chicken pox has the potential to develop shingles later in life. You are carrying it inside you right now and it is waiting for you to weaken so it can emerge.

Symptoms of Shingles

What is Shingles?
Credit: Opensource

Shingles typically manifests in rashes across the body which may or may not tingle, itch or be painful in the area.

I never experienced any pain in the only area I had a rash, on my forehead, I just felt like I had the flu.

And that is typical: generally, headache, nausea and flu-like symptoms.     

For more severe symptoms caused by painful rashes, lasting nerve damage can occur that lasts a lifetime.

The rash itself can last up to a month, however, mine was gone within a week. My breakout was very mild and from everything I have read, it can be a very serious issue if left untreated, so given the fact that I was over my symptoms so fast and have never had another issue, I tend to think it may have been something else, but I guess I will never know.

Are Shingles Contagious?

In a sense, yes, since it is derived from the chicken pox virus and that is very contagious. And if you have every had chicken pox, you have the potential to develop shingles at any time.

Can you catch shingles, the answer is no, shingles itself is not contagious in the sense that if you are around someone that is suffering from it, or has experienced it before, but the virus has gone dormant again, you cannot "catch" shingles from them.

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Is Shingles Contagious?

Shingles Vaccination

In the last decade, Merck has developed a shingles vaccination, but it is only recommended for people 50 and older.[1]

However, it is not a cure for shingles, nor will it relieve the symptoms. It simply helps ward of the chances of it developing when your immune system is weak.

The vaccine goes by the medical name Zostavax, which makes sense given that the shingles virus is caused by the herpes zoster virus.[1]

It is given with one shot in the arm, unlike say the hepatitis A and B vaccines which require separate shots spaced out over 3 to 6 months.[1]

How Long Does the Shingles Vaccine Last?

The vaccination was only approved in 2006 so regarding how long it lasts is still up for some debate. Typically, it should provide some protection for 5 to 10 years. So if you get it a few years before you turn 60, you will need to get another one in your mid to late 60s to be safe.[1]

Shingles Shot Risks

If you are considering getting the vaccination, you should be aware that there are some known side effects of the shingles vaccine.

The shingles vaccine has been shown to be very safe when taken by people over 60 and without any preconditions such as a weak immune system or pregnant women.

However, like any medicine, there can be adverse reactions depending on the individual. Some of the possible side effects include:[1]

  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Chicken pox
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Painful skin rash or redness around the injection area
  • Diarrhea
  • Joint or muscle pain

Symptoms and Causes of Shingles

Who Should Not Get the Shingles Vaccination

If you are pregnant or breast feeding, you should avoid the Zostavax vaccine. That is one of those CYA legal items the company puts out because how many 50 plus year old women do you know that are pregnant or breast feeding.[1]

Also, if you have any other medical problems that require prescription medications, you should avoid, or at least wait until those conditions clear up before getting the shot.

Remember, it is a preventative measure, not a cure for when you have shingles, so make sure that you get it well in advance of turning 60.