What Is Shingles?

Have you ever been infected with the chicken pox virus? If so, you should be aware of shingles. House Call Doctor explains. 

Sanaz Majd, MD
3-minute read
Episode #103


Have you ever had the chicken pox (or “varicella”)?  If so, did you know that years down the road it can return with a vengeance in a different format that causes not only a rash, but severe pain?  This is a potentially debilitating condition called shingles (or “zoster”) that affects nearly 1 million people in the U.S. every year.  

But the good news is that there’s a great way to prevent it, so keep listening to learn more.

What is Shingles?

After the chicken pox resolves, the virus actually never goes away completely.  It hibernates within the cushy nerve roots inside your body, of all places.  Then, years down the line, often decades, it just decides to take a breather and wreak havoc by slithering through your nerves and out through your skin.  It manifests by causing a peculiar rash and, unfortunately, pain over that area.

The rash starts as redness that is very localized – you may actually be able to see a distinct line of redness that separates it from the rest of your skin.  Within this redness, there are often vesicles filled with fluid, much like the chicken pox. These vesicles eventually pop open and crust over within several days. The rash often disappears within one month.

Who Gets Shingles?

The answer is: Anyone with a previous chicken pox infection.  It’s thought that up to one third of people with previous chicken pox can develop shingles.  But those whose immune systems are compromised are deemed riskier – for instance, people with cancer, HIV, a history of an organ transplant, or on medications that suppress the immune system (such as the meds you take for rheumatoid arthritis).

The virus is transmitted when a person who has never had the varicella vaccine or the chicken pox disease touches a person carrying shingles.  Shingles is thought to be most contagious from the time the rash develops until those vesicles crust over.

What’s the Big Deal About Shingles?

You may be thinking, “So what?  What’s the big whoop if there’s a rash that comes and goes?”  Well, the reason shingles is so feared is because of the aftermath – the pain that potentially lingers for weeks or even months afterward, is called “post-herpetic neuralgia.”  This pain is so bad that it is sometimes described as excruciating by some patients.  For other lucky ducks, however, it can be mild and resolves quickly.  

Rarely, it can spread through the bloodstream and cause other threatening conditions such as hepatitis, meningitis, and pneumonia. If the rash involves the eye, it can cause problems with the vision or even blindness.

Pregnant women should never come into contact with someone with active shingles, as it can spread to the vulnerable fetus and cause complications.

How to Prevent Shingles Spread?

For those with active shingles, it would be super helpful if you cover up the rash so that no one else can come into direct contact with it.

The good news is that there is a vaccine to prevent shingles.  Although the vaccine is FDA approved for people aged 50 or more, it is often most recommended for those age 60 and up (the age range that shingles seems to affect the most), whether or not they remember having chicken pox in the past.

Once you do have shingles, however, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication – the sooner you start taking it, the better your results.

Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.