Facts about Shingles for Adults

What is shingles?
Shingles (also called herpes zoster) is caused by the varicella zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes chickenpox. The virus stays inactive in the body for life and can reactivate years, or even decades later, causing shingles. Because shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk for shingles, including about 98% of US adults.

About one million shingles cases occur in the US every year and almost one in three US adults will get shingles in their lifetime. Shingles can affect anyone who has had chickenpox at any time, however, it is more severe in those age 60 years and older. Shingles is associated with normal aging and anything that weakens the immune system such as certain medications, cancers, or infections, but it can also occur in healthy children and younger persons. Shingles is not passed from person to person.

Symptoms of shingles
Shingles is a viral infection that causes a painful rash that can be severe. The shingles rash usually develops on one side of the face or body. You may not be able to see the first signs of the rash, but you might feel pain, itching, or tingling where the rash will develop. The virus can cause nerve pain that can last for months or even years. The older you are, the greater your risk of long-term nerve pain is. Long-term nerve pain has been described as burning, stabbing, throbbing, or shooting. Shingles can also develop in the eyes and cause vision loss. Other symptoms include fever, headache, chills, upset stomach, muscle weakness, skin infection, scarring, and decrease or loss of vision or hearing. 

Prevention of shingles
There is a safe, effective vaccine available to help prevent shingles. The vaccine is the best way to reduce your chance of developing shingles or, if you do get it, to reduce the chance of long-lasting pain. If you’ve already had shingles, the disease can come back. You can get the shingles vaccine (6 to 12 months after you’ve had shingles) to help prevent future occurrences of the disease. The shingles vaccine is one-time vaccination and is available at pharmacies and doctors’ offices. 

Who should get shingles vaccine?
You have a greater chance of getting shingles as you age, which is why the shingles vaccine is recommended for everyone age 60 years and older. The shingles vaccine reduces the risk of shingles by half (51%) and reduces the risk of prolonged pain at the rash site by 67%. 

Vaccine safety
The most common side-effects following shingles vaccination are redness, pain, tenderness, and swelling at the injection site; and headache. As with any medicine, there are very small risks that serious problems could occur after getting the vaccine. However, the potential risks associated with shingles are much greater than the potential risks associated with the vaccine. No specific safety concerns arose during shingles vaccine trials.

Disease and vaccine facts
  • FACT: There are about one million cases of shingles diagnosed in the US every year; about half are in people age 60 years and older. 
  • FACT: Shingles typically affects older people and those whose immune systems have been weakened by HIV infection, cancers, or treatment with immunosuppressive drugs. 
  • FACT: There is a safe, effective vaccine to prevent shingles; it is recommended for everyone age 60 years and older. 
  • FACT: Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. 
  • FACT: The first time someone is infected with varicella zoster virus they can get chickenpox. The virus can then remain dormant in the body for decades and cause shingles later. 
  • FACT: Shingles causes a painful, blistering rash that usually appears on just one side of the body, most often on the torso or face. 
  • FACT: Pain and numbness may occur in the location of the rash two to four days before the rash appears. 
  • FACT: The most common complication of shingles is post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), a long-lasting, hard to treat pain.
  • FACT: PHN lowers quality of life about as much as congestive heart failure, a heart attack, type II diabetes, and major depression.
  • FACT: Medications used to treat PHN pain are only modestly effective.
  • FACT: There is a vaccine available that reduces the risk of shingles by 50 percent and the risk of PHN by 66 percent.
  • FACT: Shingles vaccine is recommended for people even if they’ve had shingles before because they can get it again. 
  • FACT: The shingles vaccine should be given to people in the recommended age group even if they cannot remember if they ever had chickenpox.

November 2015

For more information, speak with your healthcare professional or visit www.adultvaccination.org.